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Watch your tongue: Scientists make unusual fat-loss link to sleep apnea

13 January 2020

"Most clinicians, and even experts in the sleep apnea world, have not typically focused on fat in the tongue for treating sleep apnea", says co-author Richard Schwab, chief of Sleep Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Now that we know that tongue fat is a risk factor and that sleep apnea improves when tongue fat decreases, we have established a unique therapeutic target that we have never had before".

A sleep disorder that can leave people gasping for breath at night could be linked to the amount of fat on their tongues, a study suggests.

According to the new study, however, fat causing an enlargement of the tongue may be the primary factor in obstructive sleep apnea.

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The study found that reductions in tongue fat resulted in the greatest improvements in OSA. Thats what this new study found when it did MRIs on 67 people who had both obesity and obstructive sleep apnea before and after they lost weight.

The team found that reducing the volume of fat in the tongue was the main link between losing weight and improving sleep apnea.

It is also possible that therapies aimed at targeted fat removal, such as cool sculpting, may prove to be useful in patients with OSA, he noted.

Larger and fattier tongues are more common among obese patients.

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They believe that tongue fat is a potential new therapeutic target for improving sleep apnea. The findings were made based on MRI scans of the upper airway in obese people suffering from this condition. Weight loss was not associated with other upper airway changes. Among the latter patients, eight patients had gastric sleeve surgery, nine had Roux-en-Y gastric bypass, and one had gastric banding.

The participants lost almost 10 per cent of their body weight, on average, over six months through diet or weight loss surgery, and correspondingly their sleep apnea scores improved by 31 per cent after the intervention. 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.

To understand how weight loss affected the upper airway and abdominal fat, the researchers assessed Pearson's correlations between percent changes in weight and anatomical structures. Overall, the participants' AHI scores improved by 30.7 percent as measured by polysomnograpy, or sleep study.

The research was carried out by scientists at the University of Pennsylvania, and built on one of their earlier studies comparing tongue size and fat content among obese patients with and without sleep apnea.

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The current study results demonstrating a specific role for tongue fat volume could explain the poor treatment performance.

Watch your tongue: Scientists make unusual fat-loss link to sleep apnea