Researchers have discovered that improvements in sleep apnea symptoms appear to be linked to the reduction of fat in one unexpected body part - the tongue. Overweight and obese people may make up as much as 70% of those with OSA, and weight loss reliably eases the symptoms of the disorder and sometimes resolves the problem altogether, according to a 2006 study.
And they discovered that every extra one per cent tongue weight loss equated to a one per cent reduction in the risk of sleep apnoea.
According to study leader Richard Schwab from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, patients who suffer from snoring or sleepiness should be checked for sleep apnea. A 2007 study found that people with higher body mass indices (BMIs) accumulate a higher percentage of fat in their tongues than people with lower BMIs.
A new study, from the University of Pennsylvania, found that when people lose weight in their body, they also lose weight in their tongue.
"Yes, it seems obvious, but no one looked at this before", Schwab told Live Science. The team believe that tongue fat is a potential new target for improving sleep apnea, which is a serious health condition in which breathing stops and starts throughout the night when sleeping, causing patients to wake up and increasing the risk for high blood pressure and stroke. These tests were carried out using MRI scanning.The scans showed that sleep apnoea scores improved by 31 per cent as a result of tongue fat reduction.Dr Schwab explained: "In fact, the more tongue fat you lost, the more your apnoea improved".
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The participants underwent a weight loss intervention, losing an average of 10 percent of their body weight over a six-month period, either through diet or bariatric surgery.
In "Effect of Weight Loss on Upper Airway Anatomy and the Apnea Hypopnea Index: The Importance of Tongue Fat", Richard J. Schwab, MD, and co-authors report on a study that used magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, to measure the effect of weight loss on the pharyngeal structures surrounding the upper airway, which extends from the mouth to the larynx.
The team also evaluated the severity of the participants' sleep apnea before and after their weight loss by observing each person in a sleep study.
The patients' weight loss also led to a reduction in the size of a jaw muscle that controls chewing and muscles on either side of the airway, which also helped.
The researchers are now investigating whether non-obese patients who have "fatty" tongues could also be at risk of sleep apnea, but are less likely to be diagnosed. The findings were published today (January 10, 2020) in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine. The ATS publishes three journals, the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, the American Journal of Respiratory Cell and Molecular Biology and the Annals of the American Thoracic Society.