Social Security Disability and Morbid Obesity

In deciding disability, Social Security will consider obesity only if it causes or contributes to listed impairments or severely limits your functioning.

By , J.D., The Colleges of Law

The Social Security Administration (SSA) defines obesity as a chronic and complex disease characterized by excessive body fat accumulation. According to the most recent CDC statistics published in 2021, 41.9% of American adults are considered clinically obese.

Being obese doesn't guarantee that you'll qualify for disability benefits. Generally, you must have additional health conditions that, when combined with obesity, meet Social Security's definition of disability. If your weight has caused other health complications that affect your ability to work full-time for at least one year, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

What is Obesity?

Obese adults are those with a body mass index (BMI) of 30 and over. Morbidly obese adults have a BMI of 40 or more. (Overweight adults have a BMI of 25-29.9.) Medical providers calculate BMI to help determining whether a patient is obese, but they also assess the amount of "excess fat". This is because if a person has a large percentage of their weight coming from muscle, they may have a high BMI but not necessarily be obese. On the other hand, a person may have a "healthy" BMI, but if they have little muscle, they may have an unhealthy percentage of their body weight coming from fat.

Causes and Contributions to Obesity

Obesity can be related to metabolic syndrome (sometimes called obesity syndrome), which involves a larger waist size, insulin resistance, elevated triglyceride levels, and high blood pressure. Obesity is often also linked to other medical conditions in the musculoskeletal, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. Sometimes, functional limitations from these related impairments may be significant enough to meet a medical listing.

Can I Get Disability for Obesity?

To get Social Security disability benefits, you need to meet the non-medical eligibility criteria for the type of benefit you're applying for. Eligibility for SSDI is based on your work history, so you'll need to have earned enough work credits for full insurance under this program. SSI operates on a needs-based model and has income and asset limits to qualify. If you're applying for SSI, make sure your earnings and resources fall within the specified limits. Usually, applicants must show they have only a few thousand dollars to qualify.

Next, you'll need to show that you are affected by severe impairments that hinder your ability to engage in full-time employment for a minimum of one year. You can do this in one of two ways:

  • meet or equal the requirements of a "listing," a description of an impairment that is in the Social Security "Blue Book," or
  • show that no jobs exist that you can do with your limitations, physical and mental.

Getting Obesity Disability Through the Listing of Impairments

Obesity hasn't been a listed impairment since 1999, but you can still get disability benefits for if you have limitations as a result of obesity that either equal a listing or contribute to other listings. One example where obesity may be severe enough to equal a listing would be if your obesity keeps you from walking effectively. In such cases, Social Security may evaluate obesity under a musculoskeletal listing (1.18) for abnormality of a major joint in any extremity.

Examples of listings for disorders that are often comorbid (occur at the same time as) with obesity include:

Social Security will consider how obesity impairs your ability to function with these other conditions. If you're obese and also have arthritis in your knees, you might have more pain and trouble walking than somebody with arthritis who isn't obese. This is important because most listings require you to have severe functional limitations in basic motor activities (like walking).

Obesity can also help fulfill the severity requirements of another listing. For example, one of the ways to meet listing 12.05 for intellectual disorder is to have an IQ below 75 in addition to a physical condition that causes a significant limitation in what work you can perform. Disability applicants with an IQ of 73 who are also obese may meet the intellectual disorder listing if Social Security agrees that their obesity results in significant work-related limitations.

Getting Disability for Obesity through a Medical-Vocational Allowance

If your medical records don't show that obesity and another impairment combine to meet or equal a listing, Social Security can still find that you're disabled if your residual functional capacity (RFC) rules out all jobs. Your RFC is a set of restrictions on what you can and can't do in a work environment.

Obesity can cause limitations in your ability to physically perform certain job tasks, and Social Security should include these restrictions in your RFC. Depending on where in the body the excessive fat is carried, you may have limitations in standing, walking, kneeling, lifting, sitting, crouching, bending, stooping, and balancing. Or, if you carry excess fatty tissue in your hands, your RFC may contain limitations in your ability to use your fingers for tasks involving fine detail (such as typing or filing).

Just like when determining whether your obesity and another medical condition combine to meet or equal a listing, Social Security will look to see how obesity has an impact on other limitations in your RFC. For example, if you're obese and also have a diagnosis of a pulmonary (breathing-related) disease, your RFC will likely contain more restrictions on how long you can walk and how much weight you can lift than somebody with the same condition but who isn't obese. Any pain you experience (say, from standing or sitting too long) that is exacerbated by obesity should also contribute to restrictions on those activities in your RFC.

Social Security uses your RFC to determine whether you can return to your past work and, if not, what jobs are left that you can do despite your limitations. If Social Security finds that you can perform certain jobs that exist in significant numbers in the national economy, the agency will deny your application. But if the agency decides that your obesity and associated symptoms are so limiting that no jobs exist that you can do, you'll be awarded benefits under what is called a medical-vocational allowance.

Filing for Obesity Disability Benefits

Social Security makes it convenient to apply for benefits. You can file your application in one of three ways:

If the application process seems intimidating, consider hiring an attorney or representative to help file your application for you. Your lawyer can gather the medical evidence needed to show that you meet a listed impairment or are unable to work full-time.

Updated December 11, 2023

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