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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Friedman School releases study on impact of cardiometabolic conditions on COVID-19 hospitalizations

The Tufts Jaharis Family Center for Biomedical and Nutrition Sciences building is pictured.

Researchers at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy conducted a study on the impact of comorbidities on COVID-19 infections in adults. The results of the study were published on Feb. 25.

The report of the study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, found that nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 hospitalizations in American adults can be attributed to at least one pre-existing condition. These include obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart failure.

The study was co-written by Meghan O’Hearn, Junxiu Liu, Frederick Cudhea, Renata Micha and Dariush Mozaffarian.

O’Hearn, a doctoral candidate, spoke on why the team decided to research this correlation. 

“As the pandemic unfolded last spring, states and countries hardest hit by the pandemic were reporting more severe COVID-19 infections (hospitalization and mortality) among individuals with pre-existing conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease," O'Hearn wrote in an email to the Daily. "We wanted to take this knowledge and extrapolate to the entire US adult population, using modeling techniques our research group regularly uses for assessing diet-related disease burdens."

The study used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for 14 states as well as national data on estimated COVID-19 hospitalizations. Examining this data through a comparative risk assessment, the researchers found a correlation between comorbidities and COVID-19 hospitalizations.

O'Hearn said that the biggest risk was obesity, which was responsible for 30% of excess hospitalizations. She further summarized the results of the study.

"Our new research on obesity, diabetes, and COVID-19 suggests 63% of US hospitalizations for COVID may have been prevented, due to less severe illness, if we had a metabolically healthy population," O'Hearn said.

She expanded further on the study's findings.

“Our main finding — the magnitude of the burdens of COVID-19 hospitalizations attributable to poor metabolic health (nearly two-thirds of all hospitalizations) — was striking," O'Hearn said. "This is a wake-up call to improve our nation’s metabolic health through improvements to diet and physical activity, both for this pandemic and the future ones certain to come."

According to O'Hearn, the study found that if the national prevalence of the conditions was reduced by 10%, about 11% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations could have been prevented. These disparities in metabolic health may explain why there are more severe COVID-19 outcomes seen in Black and Hispanic American communities.

Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, elaborated on how these comorbidities affect vaccine rollout in various states. 

“The vaccine rollout in Massachusetts and many other states is prioritizing people with these pre-existing conditions, although that also complicates delivery and rollout compared to simple age-based criteria, like in [Connecticut],” Mozaffarian wrote in an email to the Daily.

Massachusetts is currently in Phase 2, Group 2 of its vaccination plan, which includes people with two or more certain medical conditions that increase the risk for severe illness. This would include people with obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart failure.

Micha, a research associate professor at the Friedman School, explained how the study's findings are important in continuing conversations about chronic diseases.

"Chronic preventable diseases are a tremendous burden on individuals and societies, not just in the United States but around the world," Micha wrote in an email to the Daily. "This study adds to the evidence that obesity is not simply a matter of individual choices, but is a systemic issue that governments, civil society and businesses must work together to address."

Mozaffarian underlined this point, and how it fits in with discussions about the pandemic. 

"Our findings highlight the urgent need for government officials, as they are emphasizing wearing masks, hand washing, and social distancing every day — all important measures — to also highlight every day to the public the importance of eating a little better, moving a little more," Mozaffarian said. "Even small changes can make a difference."