One of the Biggest COVID Risks Actually Only Affects Men, Study Finds

Here's yet another way that men are disproportionately affected by coronavirus.

Coronavirus has a notoriously wide range of possible outcomes: while many patients survive unscathed with no detectable symptoms, others suffer an onslaught of complications that ultimately lead to death. How each person fares seems determined by how the disease is compounded by risk factors—a long list which includes obesity, according to the CDC. However, a surprising new study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine finds that obesity—once considered an equal threat to men and women alike—may only serve as an independent risk factor in the cases of men.

Though many have assumed that obesity contributes to COVID mortality because of its association with conditions like heart disease, diabetes, respiratory conditions, and more, the study concluded that obese men—especially middle-aged men under the age of 60—fared worse than normal weight individuals, even in the absence of these conditions.

To reach this conclusion, the team analyzed the health charts of nearly 7,000 members of the Kaiser Permanente Southern California Health System, recorded between mid-February and early May. Study participants were a median age of 49 years old, racially diverse, and had a mean BMI of 30, with nearly half considered clinically obese.

Notably, researchers found that the risk level did indeed rise along with BMI for patients of both sexes. Those considered "extremely obese," defined as a BMI of 40 or more, were nearly three times more likely to die of coronavirus complications than those of normal weight, and those with a BMI of 45 were over four times more likely to reach a fatal outcome. But as the researchers systematically factored out co-morbidities associated with more severe coronavirus cases, it became apparent that only in men did obesity itself take a significant toll.

Though more research on the topic is necessary, The New York Times reports that it's possible that this gender gap in obesity-related morbidity can be explained by how fat is differently distributed in the bodies of men and women. Men tend to concentrate their weight around the abdomen, and have higher levels of visceral fat, which is associated with higher morbidity rates in general.

Women, of course, are not totally off the hook. Having a higher BMI can still cause the conditions that we know to complicate coronavirus, and maintaining a healthy weight is still associated with better outcomes. As for men, they can add these findings to a growing list of reasons to be extra cautious during the pandemic. And for more on how men are disproportionately affected by COVID, This Is Why Coronavirus Is Killing More Men Than Women, New Study Says.

Lauren Gray
Lauren Gray is a New York-based writer, editor, and consultant. Read more