We’ve all heard by now that people generally older than 60 are more susceptible to dying from the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. It’s primarily believed this is because there are other health issues at play, as with those who often die from the flu.
Underlying health conditions make the body either more likely to get sick or less able to fight a disease. Recent data has shown that the younger people who have also died from the virus also had significant health issues that heightened their risk of contracting the virus and dying from it.
Thus Americans continue to hear that those who are elderly and with “underlying health conditions” or “compromised immune systems” are most at risk. Despite calls on governments and experts around the world to define what exactly those phrases mean, very little has been done to adequately show just how many people fall into those categories of increased susceptibility. Thus, to no one’s surprise, many assume these “conditions” have nothing to do with them.
We still know very little about SARS-CoV-2 due to its fast spread and the lack of research and data, but what we do know is that millions more people are in the at-risk groups than think they are. Very common health issues are what experts are talking about, but many haven’t heard that. For their safety, they need to.
The Truth About Underlying Health Conditions
All over the world evidence has shown that those at highest risk of dying from the coronavirus are the elderly, particularly those who had pre-existing health conditions. Yet analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that four in 10 adults (more than 105 million Americans) could potentially develop a serious illness from the virus.
The term underlying health condition generally means two different things that both affect a significant portion of the population. The two general ways of thinking about underlying conditions are either chronic diseases (long-term medical conditions like asthma or high blood pressure) or immunocompromised individuals (which is anything that weakens the immune system).
While there is evidence that younger people with underlying health conditions tend to make a full recovery, they are still at increased risk of complications from coronavirus. These include pneumonia, intensive treatment, and difficulty breathing.
Because we are learning new information about the virus every hour of every day, if you are in any way at higher risk of infection, complications, or death, this is not the time to think that your age or outward appearance of health is going to protect you. That’s particularly because coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 transmission occurs through everyday airborne interactions with other such as coughing or sneezing.
What Health Conditions Could Create Higher Risk
Here are the current conditions and some common activities that could compromise your immune system, putting you at greater risk of contracting coronavirus and having serious complications due to it.
Diabetes: Diabetes is at the top of the threat list due to how it affects the body. If blood sugar has been poorly managed, it weakens your immune system, making it less able to fight infection. Unfortunately, much of this risk is associated with previous diet and exercise, which cannot be undone or changed in a short timeframe.
At present, more than 34 million U.S. adults have diabetes, and an estimated 20 percent of those people don’t know they have it. Another 88 million adults have pre-diabetes, with a shocking 80 percent of those individuals not aware they are classified that way.
Heart Disease: Heart disease is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. In fact, it’s estimated that 25 percent of deaths in America are due to heart disease, highlighting just how many people are at risk.
The term encompasses several types of heart conditions. Sadly, almost 20 million adults over the age of 20 have coronary heart disease, the most common type of heart disease, which affects blood flow to the heart. Heart attacks and strokes are also common among those who have diabetes, ae overweight, have an unhealthy diet or are inactive physically.
Lung Disease: Lung diseases are some of the most common medical conditions in the world, and are often chronic. The term includes everything from asthma to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) to bronchitis. Technically, even allergies are related to lung disease.
With coronavirus, it appears that asthma sufferers are at a greater risk of being affected by the way it causes an infection in the respiratory tract. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 27 million Americans have asthma. Surprisingly, it’s the most common chronic condition of children in America, affecting every 1 in 12 children.
Obesity: It is well known that being overweight affects various other diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and sleep. But it is also linked to a weakened immune system. While the link is not well defined, and appears to be both direct and indirect.
Research in the last few years has contended that the microbiome and the micro-organisms inside and outside our bodies play a larger part than previously thought in our weight and immune system. In tandem, the effects of obesity—even with no other health issues—puts one at greater risk of having a compromised immune system.
Pregnancy: While there is very little known about the role pregnancy might play in susceptibility or severity of the virus, pregnant women are considered at higher risk. This is because pregnant women experience changes to their bodies that may increase their risk to infections, according to the CDC.
Smoking and Drinking: Neither smoking (including vaping) nor drinking are technically considered underlying health conditions, but they are present in many young people’s everyday lives. And they compromise your immune system.
Smokers in particular are at an increased risk of getting an acute respiratory infection. Drinking, on the other hand, disrupts the immune system’s pathways. This impairs the body’s ability to fight infection, and has links to the microbiome. Although neither activity has been directly linked to any coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 deaths, the activities put one at higher risk for contracting the virus and having complications once contracted.
Until more experts and agencies establish more details, we do not know exactly what pre-existing health conditions make us more or less susceptible to contracting the virus. Nor will we know how those conditions influence the severity of the illness once contracted.
But what is clear is that we need better and more communication about those who have had the worst symptoms and outcomes. That means we also need more data. Until that time, we do know that the virus is highly contagious and the best way to prevent getting it is to stay home.
It’s also important to know that having any of the above chronic diseases or underlying health issues certainly doesn’t mean that you are doomed to get coronavirus. But it does mean that we all need to be more aware of how common these conditions are, and far more people need to be taking precautions and following the public recommendations.