The COVID-19 pandemic threatens everyone’s health, but the risk of serious complications from the virus can be higher among people with certain health conditions. Not only is obesity one such condition, but people who are obese also may be more likely to develop other conditions that raise the risk of COVID-19 complications.
A growing number of people who worry about their weight have had bariatric weight loss surgery to reduce their risk. In this video, San Diego Health host Susan Taylor talks with Mark Takata, MD, a specialist in minimally invasive bariatric surgery at Scripps Clinic, about the link between obesity and COVID-19, and what to expect from weight loss surgery.
Obese people already have a higher risk of serious medical problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and some types of cancer. They also have an increased risk of inflammation and decreased immunity, as well as lung disease. When you add COVID-19, these problems are magnified.
“The combination is quite challenging medically,” says Dr. Takata. “Patients with obesity who get COVID-19 have an increased risk of being hospitalized, needing intensive care unit support, and mortality.”
Losing weight can help reduce many of these risks. When other methods, such as diet and exercise, have not been effective, bariatric surgery may be the solution, especially for people with a body mass index (BMI) of 35 or greater. Those with a BMI between 35 and 40 typically also need to have a weight-related medical problem, such as type 2 diabetes, to qualify for surgery; if BMI is above 40, a weight-related medical problem is usually not required.
Bariatric surgery is an operation that shrinks the size of the stomach by about 80 to 90%. Using minimally invasive (laparoscopic) techniques, the bariatric surgeon reduces the stomach capacity, which reduces the amount of food it can hold and, as a result, the number of calories consumed.
Next, the surgeon attaches the stomach pouch to the middle portion of the small intestine, bypassing the top portion of the intestine and further reducing the number of calories absorbed by the body.
“The effect on our bodies is that we have a decreased appetite and decreased ability to eat as much as we did before,” says Dr. Takata. “The combination of decreased appetite and less volume of eating creates a perfect marriage for weight loss.”
Because laparoscopic bypass surgery requires only a few small incisions, patients generally have less pain, shorter hospital stays, decreased risk of complications, shorter recovery time and better cosmetic results. Most patients spend one or two nights in the hospital after surgery, followed by three to six weeks of recovery time at home. Typically, they start a diet and exercise regimen almost right away.
In addition to having a BMI of 35 or above, most people interested in bariatric weight loss surgery must first complete a medically supervised weight loss program. If this is not successful, they then attend an educational seminar to learn about bariatric surgery, and begin working with a dietitian on nutritional plans before surgery and during recovery. Also, all patients undergo a psychological assessment to make sure they are emotionally and mentally ready for the procedure.
Dr. Takata encourages anyone considering bariatric weight loss surgery to schedule a consultation. “If you’re obese, there’s no better way to regain your health than to lose weight, and it is absolutely safe to come in during COVID,” he says. “We have been doing weight loss surgery for many months now during this pandemic and are taking all precautions to keep our patients safe.”