Heavy D’s cause of death still unknown: is obesity linked with pneumonia?

The death of rapper Heavy D on Tuesday still has fans in shock as they wonder what felled the 44-year-old star. Though the cause of death may not be known for weeks, L.A. Now reports that an L.A. County coroner’s office spokesman said a doctor had prescribed the rapper a drug due to a cough.

Heavy D was also having breathing problems at his home before collapsing, and there is speculation that the rapper was experiencing flu-like symptoms or pneumonia.

Some studies have shown a link between obesity and a higher risk of pneumonia. A 2010 study in the European Respiratory Journal followed 22,578 men and 25,973 women ages 50 to 64 who were part of the Danish Diet, Cancer and Health study. All had no history of major chronic diseases at the beginning of the study.

After separating the participants by body mass index, researchers discovered that moderately obese men had a 40% higher risk of pneumonia compared with normal-weight men. Severely obese men were two times as likely to develop pneumonia compared with their normal-weight counterparts. Those same higher risks were not seen among women.


However, when the researchers adjusted for chronic diseases, the association was not apparent. That may be due to obesity’s relationship with other diseases that impact pneumonia risk by weakening the immune system, for example.

A similar link between obesity and pneumonia was seen in a 2000 Archives of Internal Medicine study that included more than 100,000 men and women ages 22 to 79 who were followed for two to six years. Among women, having a higher body mass index was associated with a greater risk of pneumonia, although that risk went down with exercise. And among men and women, gaining 40 pounds or more upped the risk of pneumonia almost two-fold compared with people who maintained their weight.

A 2010 study of 68 hospitalized pneumonia patients in China also found a connection with obesity. All of the patients were treated in an intensive care-unit, and 10 died; 34% had at least one underlying medical condition and 32% of them were obese.

The study, published in the journal BMC Infectious Diseases, reported that conditions linked with death were obesity and lymphopenia, an extremely low level of lymphocytes (a certain type of white blood cell).