Modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors for COVID-19, and comparison to risk factors for influenza and pneumonia: results from a UK Biobank prospective cohort study

BMJ Open. 2020 Nov 19;10(11):e040402. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2020-040402.


Objectives: We aimed to investigate demographic, lifestyle, socioeconomic and clinical risk factors for COVID-19, and compared them to risk factors for pneumonia and influenza in UK Biobank.

Design: Cohort study.

Setting: UK Biobank.

Participants: 49-83 year olds (in 2020) from a general population study.

Main outcome measures: Confirmed COVID-19 infection (positive SARS-CoV-2 test). Incident influenza and pneumonia were obtained from primary care data. Poisson regression was used to study the association of exposure variables with outcomes.

Results: Among 235 928 participants, 397 had confirmed COVID-19. After multivariable adjustment, modifiable risk factors were higher body mass index and higher glycated haemoglobin (HbA1C) (RR 1.28 and RR 1.14 per SD increase, respectively), smoking (RR 1.39), slow walking pace as a proxy for physical fitness (RR 1.53), and use of blood pressure medications as a proxy for hypertension (RR 1.33). Higher forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol were both associated with lower risk (RR 0.84 and RR 0.83 per SD increase, respectively). Non-modifiable risk factors included male sex (RR 1.72), black ethnicity (RR 2.00), socioeconomic deprivation (RR 1.17 per SD increase in Townsend Index), and high cystatin C (RR 1.13 per SD increase). The risk factors overlapped with pneumonia somewhat, less so for influenza. The associations with modifiable risk factors were generally stronger for COVID-19, than pneumonia or influenza.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that modification of lifestyle may help to reduce the risk of COVID-19 and could be a useful adjunct to other interventions, such as social distancing and shielding of high risk.

Keywords: cardiology; diabetes & endocrinology; epidemiology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biological Specimen Banks
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • COVID-19 / ethnology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Influenza, Human / epidemiology*
  • Influenza, Human / ethnology
  • Life Style
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physical Distancing
  • Pneumonia / epidemiology*
  • Pneumonia / ethnology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / epidemiology
  • Pneumonia, Viral / ethnology
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • Sex Factors
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • United Kingdom / epidemiology


  • Biomarkers