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When epidemics form a perfect storm
The climatologists who coined the term “perfect storm” probably never imagined that it would be applied to epidemics. Yet here we are, as the global community is experiencing a collision of three epidemics: obesity, type 2 diabetes and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The last one struck swiftly; the first two have been gnawing away at humanity for more than a half-century but health authorities classify them as epidemics. As they collide we are experiencing a perfect storm.
Almost any group photo from the era around World War Two seldom includes an obviously obese person and even fewer show more than one. In 1950 the rate of obesity — somewhat arbitrarily defined as thirty pounds over normal weight for height – was only ten percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the rate of obesity – now defined as a Body Mass Index (BMI) of thirty or greater — in the United States is forty-two percent! It is even higher in some southern states. More than seventy-five percent of our population is either overweight or obese but both groups are affected by what I will discuss below.
The rise in type 2 diabetes began later but in 1950 it was diagnosed in only one percent of the population. It was called adult onset diabetes in order to differentiate it from type 1 diabetes, known as juvenile diabetes. Both terms are obsolete as the type 2 form is now common in adolescents; the current incidence in the U.S. population is an astonishing twelve percent. In persons over the age of sixty it is nearly three times as high.
Most persons with type 2 diabetes are overweight or obese. A few not so classified have excess body fat, which has similar consequences. They all have dysfunctional immune systems that put them at high risk from various types of infectious diseases, especially influenza and COVID-19. Soon after health authorities became aware of the scope of this new coronavirus they recognized that obese persons had a higher risk of dying than those of normal weight. This was exaggerated among the elderly, who not only tended to be overweight or obese as well as diabetic, but suffered from the complications caused by excessive weight, diseases of the heart, lungs and kidneys. Those who suffered greatly from these chronic diseases lived in senior facilities. It is no surprise that so many deaths from COVID-19 occurred among this group.
A fat-laden body carries more than engorged fat cells. That tissue harbors cells of the immune system that produce inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines. Inflammation is part of the normal response to infection but during a viral infection in some obese persons, inflammation goes out of control, producing cytokine storm. The flood of cytokines wreaks havoc among normal organs, causing them to fail and resulting in death.
What if today’s Americans had the very low levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes of 1950? There would be fewer persons at risk. There would be no economic paralysis. COVID-19 will eventually fade away as a result of herd immunity, vaccines, new antiviral agents and more sensible public health measures. But obesity and type 2 diabetes are here to stay. And the next pandemic, likely to occur before the end of this century, will terrorize the world again.
Depression – it’s more than just an annoyance of aging.
Depression often accompanies the aging process for several reasons: loss of a spouse, the onset of chronic or life-threatening disease, financial difficulties and loneliness. It is often unrecognized by the patient and by health professionals who miss some of its signs such as poor appetite, disordered sleep or loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
The current COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant shutdown of the economy can only exacerbate the problem, even as it extends to younger persons.
As I have pointed out in several of these annoyances of aging, depression may be a symptom of some other illness or even a side effect of a prescription medication. It can be a sign of thyroid disease, a neurological problem such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis or even chronic infection such as Lyme disease. Each of these conditions is notorious for being missed by health professionals, sometimes for years. The range of prescription drugs that are linked to depression is remarkably diverse. It includes sedatives, anticonvulsants, heart medications and many more.
A sad element of depression is that the victim is often in denial. Treatment is a challenge; anti-depressants often have serious side effects.
What appears to be depression should always prompt a search for an underlying cause even if there appear to be life-related issues.