Obesity and Evaluation of Disability in Social Security

In Social Security disability claims, obesity is an ailment that is often considered in conjunction with other medical impairments suffered by the claimant. For instance, Social Security has acknowledged that an individual who is both morbidly obese and suffering from back problems is likely to experience symptoms greater in severity to those which would be suffered from each ailment alone. It is harder, however, to prevail in a claim for disability based on morbid obesity alone. This problem can be overcome by demonstrating that the obesity is so severe and limiting that it prevents the claimant from performing jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy. In many cases, this will include demonstrating that the claimant cannot even work at a job that involves only sitting at a desk for a majority of the day.

Obesity is evaluated using the “Body Mass Index” scale (“BMI”). BMI is weight divided by height squared and multiplied by 704.5. This formula was devised by the National Institutes of Health’s Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and individuals can calculate their own BMIs by filling in their weight and height at http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/. A BMI of 30 or greater is considered obese. A BMI of 40 or greater is considered morbidly or extremely obese. Weight loss surgery, such as bariatric surgery, is recommended for individuals with BMIs greater than 40.

In Social Security evaluations, obesity will be determined to be disabling if it significantly limits the typical demands of work: sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling. It may also affect the worker’s ability to reach for and handle objects, to stoop, and to crouch. Obesity is also usually accompanied by back problems that can exacerbate exertional problems, as well as sleep apnea that can cause daytime drowsiness and fatigue. Some morbidly obese individuals also require special chairs or walking devices, and use of these devices is usually considered incompatible with ordinary work.