Tongue Fat Linked to Sleep Apnea in Obese Adults, Study


Obese adults with obstructive sleep apnea possess a larger tongue and a higher percentage of fat deposits than obese controls, according to a University of Pennsylvania led study. Researchers said that tongue fat is present in larger quantities at the base of the tongue in the retroglossal region.

Researchers said that besides broadening the size of the tongue, increased tongue fat may damage the functioning of the muscles that attach the tongue to bone. It also prevents these muscles from placing the tongue away from the airway.

For the study, researchers examined 90 obese adults with sleep apnea and 31 obese controls without sleep apnea by using high resolution upper airway magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Sophisticated volumetric reconstruction algorithms were used to study the size and distribution of upper airway fat deposits in the tongue.

"This work provides evidence of a novel pathogenic mechanism explaining the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and obesity," said principal investigator and senior author Dr. Richard J. Schwab, Professor in the Department of Medicine and co-director of the Penn Sleep Center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, in a press release.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine President Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler said that tongue size should be examined to determine their risk for obstructive sleep apnea in obese patients.

Researchers said that excess body weight is deemed as a high risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Symptoms for sleep apnea include snoring, choking, gasping, silent breathing pauses during sleep. Sleep Apnea increases risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and depression.

Adults who have a BMI of 30 or higher are considered to be obese. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 34.9 percent of U.S. adults - 78.6 million people - are obese.

Researchers said that future studies can determine the effectiveness of removing tongue fat through weight loss, upper airway exercises or surgery as a potential treatment for sleep apnea.         

The finding is published in the journal Sleep.

A recent University of Toronto study found that patients suffering from obstructive sleep apnea face heightened risk of developing diabetes.

"We found that among patients with OSA, the initial severity of the disease predicted the subsequent risk for incident diabetes," said lead author Tetyana Kendzerska in a press release.

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