Weight loss surgery drops the risk of suffering severe COVID symptoms by 60 percent

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Bariatric surgery, a procedure obese people have to dramatically cut their weight, may also protect these individuals from suffering a life-threatening case of COVID-19. Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic say obese patients undergoing the weight loss surgery before the pandemic have a 60-percent lower risk of developing severe complications if they contract coronavirus.

Previous studies show that obesity is one of several pre-existing conditions that can make a COVID infection even worse. The others include a history of hypertension, diabetes, or heart failure.

In the case of obesity, study authors say being overweight weakens the immune system, leads to chronic inflammation, and raises the risk of developing heart disease, blood clots, and breathing problems. These are all conditions that can trigger fatal complications from COVID.

With that in mind, the team wanted to see if there was a difference in COVID infection outcomes between overweight people losing weight with and without the help of surgery.

“The research findings show that patients with obesity who achieved substantial and sustained weight loss with bariatric surgery prior to a COVID-19 infection reduced their risk of developing severe illness by 60 percent,” reports Dr. Ali Aminian, lead author of the study and director of Cleveland Clinic’s Bariatric & Metabolic Institute, in a media release. “Our study provides strong evidence that obesity is a modifiable risk factor for COVID-19 that can be improved through a successful weight-loss intervention.”

Surgery won’t prevent COVID, but it may make it milder

Study authors examined over 20,000 obese patients, including roughly a quarter (5,053 people) who had a body mass index over 35 and opted for weight loss surgery between 2004 and 2017. The other 15,159 participants who opted to lose weight through other means served as the control group in the study.

For comparison, the study notes patients undergoing bariatric surgery lost 19 percent more body weight than those in the non-surgical group.

The team looked at four different types of COVID outcomes among these individuals: the number of patients contracting the virus, the percentage of patients needing hospitalization, the number needing supplemental oxygen, and the rate of patients with severe disease — meaning patients entering the ICU, needing ventilation, or dying.

Results show the chances of catching COVID-19 did not change much between these two groups, with 9.1 percent of the surgery group getting sick and 8.7 percent of the non-surgical group contracting the virus. However, there was a dramatic difference in what happens after these patients get sick.

The study finds people opting for weight loss surgery had a 49-percent lower risk of needing hospitalization. They also had a 63-percent lower chance of needing oxygen support and a 60-percent lower risk of severe COVID infection. The team believes the patients having bariatric surgery were generally healthier than their peers at the time of their infection.

“Striking findings from the current study support the reversibility of the health consequences of obesity in the patients with COVID-19,” study senior author Dr. Steven Nissen adds. “This study suggests that an emphasis on weight loss as a public health strategy can improve outcomes during the COVID-19 pandemic and future outbreaks or related infectious diseases. That is a very important finding considering that 40% of Americans have obesity.”

The study is published in JAMA Surgery.

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