From improving heart health to lowering a person’s diabetes risk, weight loss surgery can offer a variety of known benefits for people with obesity. And now a new study suggests another possible benefit: having weight loss surgery may help better prepare you to fight COVID-19 if you become infected with the virus.
About the Research
This study, published in JAMA Surgery, involved over 20,000 patients with a BMI (body mass index) of 35 or higher. About 25% of those patients had weight loss surgery before the COVID-19 pandemic started (from 2004 to 2017). The other 75% of patients used non-surgical strategies for weight loss. Overall, the researchers found that those who had undergone weight loss surgery had better outcomes when infected with COVID-19 compared to the non-surgical group. The main takeaways included:
- Weight loss surgery patients had a 49% lower risk for hospitalization when infected with COVID-19.
- They had a 63% lower risk of needing supplemental oxygen as part of their COVID-19 care.
- They had a 60% lower risk of severe COVID-19 infection (defined as a combination of ICU admission, need for mechanical ventilation, or death).
Why It Matters
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that obesity increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19—with research suggesting that obesity may triple the risk of hospitalization. But Kevin Wasco, MD, F.A.C.S., co-medical director of the ThedaCare Bariatric Program, says this study can offer hope to those who are considering weight loss surgery.
“If you are considered obese, then it may be very concerning to hear that obesity is a main comorbidity for COVID-19. But the findings of this study line up with what other research has shown about the benefits of bariatric surgery. Significant weight loss following surgery can help to improve a person’s lung function, support their immune system, and lower their chance of getting blood clots. These types of improvements all help to prepare someone to better combat a respiratory virus like COVID-19,” says Dr. Wasco.
While this study offers good news for those who have had weight loss surgery or are considering it, the authors also note the need for comprehensive plans for obesity care and prevention. With over 40% of the U.S. population considered obese, many people are facing a chronic condition that can cause heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancer, and more.
“Obesity is a main cause of preventable death in the United States,” says Dr. Wasco. “At ThedaCare, we believe obesity prevention and care programs must consider a person’s lifestyle—including diet, exercise, and their mental and emotional health.”
Dr. Wasco also notes that obesity is complex. Each day, he meets with people who have spent much time and energy trying to lose weight without getting the results they seek. In that case, bariatric surgery may be the right solution for them.
“Sometimes lifestyle changes alone aren’t necessarily successful for a variety of reasons,” he says. “In that case, a surgical intervention may give a person their life back—and help them to save their own life too.”
Dr. Wasco says he hopes this latest research helps to offer encouragement for those who have been thinking about weight loss surgery.
“It’s encouraging to see that metabolic surgery patients were better prepared to fight COVID-19 in this study and that they experienced less severe illness,” says Dr. Wasco. “So, my hope is that people with obesity understand that they have options to take control of their health. And, if you’ve been considering weight loss surgery, then now may be the time to do it.”
The ThedaCare Bariatrics team offers free webinars for people who want to learn more about their weight-loss options. You can register by calling 920.720.7211 (press Option 1) or visiting thedacare.org/services/weight-loss-surgery.