Study Finds Tongue Fat Can Lead to Sleep Apnea

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Losing weight can help your sleep, according to a new study that found tongue fat can increase your risk of sleep apnea. The study says that losing fat in your tongue can alleviate symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). The condition occurs when people stop and start breathing during sleep. Patients wake up randomly during sleep and often snore. The condition can increase the risk for stroke and high blood pressure. Obesity is a risk factor, but so is having a recessed jaw or large tonsils.
According to a report in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, a team led by Dr. Richard Schwab, the chief of sleep medicine at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, used MRI scans to look at how weight loss affected the upper airway. They say that lowering tongue fat is a primary factor to ease the severity of OSA.
Though we already knew weight loss can improve symptoms, Schwab said research hasn’t looked at fat loss in the tongue. “Now that we know tongue fat is a risk factor and that sleep apnea improves when tongue fat is reduced, we have established a unique therapeutic target that we’ve never had before,” he said in a statement. In 2014, Schwab conducted research that found patients with obesity and OSA had larger tongues and higher percentages of tongue fat compared to those without sleep apnea. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommended that doctors examine it during screenings. “Fat deposition within the tongue — and potentially other structures surrounding the upper airway — may transform our understanding of the link between weight gain and OSA, with wide-ranging implications for diagnosis and treatment,” Dr. Eric J. Kezirian, a professor in otolaryngology-head and neck surgery at the University of Southern California, wrote in an accompanying editorial to Schwab’s 2014 work.

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