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The non-COVID pandemic we need to talk about

Sept. 29, 2021
While debates ensue over vaccines and masks, why aren’t we putting more of our energy and focus into building our immunity and disease prevention—namely, fighting against the obesity epidemic? Stephanie Baker, BS, RDH, believes we should be.

Pan·dem·ic: (of a disease) prevalent over an entire country or the world (adjective); an outbreak of a pandemic disease (noun).

We are facing a threat for our very survival and livelihood. Doctors and scientists are deeply concerned by the alarming spread and severity of this pandemic. The death toll is rising. Every health organization is urging citizens to take precautions, protect themselves, and change their lifestyle.

Pandemic is not a word to be used lightly. Reality has shown it is here to stay, at least for the time being. Let’s focus on words that can have an even greater prevailing impact:

  • Awareness
  • Prevention
  • Public health
  • Lifestyle changes

The ongoing pandemic I’m referring to is obesity. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater. People with a BMI of 25 or more are considered overweight. Based on statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention1, in 2018, slightly more than 42% of Americans are obese, with another 32.5% recognized as overweight.

About 78% of the people who were hospitalized, placed on a ventilator, or died from COVID-19 have been obese or overweight2. By contrast, hospitalizations, ICU admissions, and deaths were least likely for COVID patients with a BMI of 25 or less.

Obesity is directly related to many chronic, debilitating diseases. This includes the most prevalent diseases preeminent to the leading causes of death: heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and cancer. According to the CDC, somewhere between $147 to $210 billion is spent annually on obesity-related health care.

While debates ensue over vaccine passports and mask mandates, in light of current statistics, why aren’t we putting more of our energy and focus into building our immunity and disease prevention? Health management and weight control are issues we can regulate in the midst of such uncertainty.

Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest nonprofit health-care plans in the US, performed a study with more than 50,000 COVID-19 patients. The study, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, found that people who are inactive have poor outcomes, more than doubling their odds of hospitalization and admission to the ICU. The death toll was two and a half times more likely among patients who were inactive.

Their findings confirmed positive outcomes for active individuals, even among those who were inconsistently active. Deborah Rohm Young, PhD, who coauthored the study, stated, “What surprised me the most from this study was the strength of the association between activity and poor outcomes from COVID-19.” Even including variables such as smoking, inactivity still proved to be a significant factor in hospitalization and death compared to moderate physical activity or even any activity at all.

Intensifying the situation, the COVID-19 pandemic has most likely contributed to obesity and inactivity. A PubMed study on the effects of the pandemic on weight gain found 29% of women and 27% of men saw a weight gain of > 5% of their body weight. The American Psychological Association’s “Annual Stress in America” poll says 40% of Americans have gained weight since the beginning of the pandemic.

Twenty years ago, no states had an overall adult obesity rate above 25%.3 In 2018, there were a total of nine states with an obesity rate of 35% or greater. In 2020, there was a huge increase to 16 states with an obesity rate of 35% or higher. Health officials are concerned this new obesity trend will continue to advance escalating mortality rates and increase diagnosis of serious conditions such as heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's disease, type 2 diabetes,cancer, and more.

Regardless which side of the vaccine debate you're on, we can all benefit from improved health and weight management. We preach to our patients about unhealthy eating habits, smoking, sleep medicine, and the connection between periodontal health and systemic diseases. Would your patients value your recommendations if you were visibly missing teeth or had gross decay? The paradox would discourage patients from adopting effective oral health-care practices, and they would justify their lack of compliance by our refusal to practice what we preach.

Our patients look to us as trusted health-care professionals. Once again it leads us to one of the terms we value within medical and dental communities: prevention. Katrina Klein, key opinion leader and ergonomics and fitness authority, says that insurance companies don’t incentivize being healthy—that’s our responsibility. “Prevention is free, so our patients don’t value it. We often don’t value it unless it ends up on a day sheet. There is no code to submit for presenting workplace pain, any more than there is for being consistently active. Insurance companies don’t incentivize being healthy—that has to be on us.“

True leadership involves leading by example. Patients will learn from our examples, not always by our advice. As a hygienist, I want to positively influence my patients in every regard, including health and wellness. It’s been said that our bodies are the baggage we carry through life. The more excess baggage, the shorter the trip. Health is an investment and good health is the currency that makes life worth living. Your investment in yourself, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, is also an investment in others.


1. Hales C, et al. Prevalence of Obesity and Severe Obesity Among Adults: United States, 2017–2018. National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. February 2020. Accessed September 21, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db360.htm.

2. Kompaniyets L, et al. Body Mass Index and Risk for COVID-19–Related Hospitalization, Intensive Care Unit Admission, Invasive Mechanical Ventilation, and Death. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report MMWR. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. March 2021. Accessed September 21, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7010e4.htm?s_cid=mm7010e4_w.

3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Number of States with High Obesity Prevalence Rises to Sixteen. September 15, 2021 Accessed September 21, 2021. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2021/s0915-obesity-rate.html

Stephanie Baker, BS, RDH, is a coach, speaker, writer, business owner, and a registered dental hygienist. She writes for several industry-related publications. Her 32 years of clinical and support team experience are the inspiration for her writing, and the motivation for coaching clients to success.