Scientists make unusual link between fat loss and sleep apnea

Henrietta Brewer
January 13, 2020

CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machines improve sleep apnea in about 75 percent of patients, studies suggest, but for the other 25 percent - those who may have trouble tolerating the machine - alternative treatment options, such as oral appliances or upper airway surgery, are more complicated. While there are machines and devices that can help prevent these unsafe pauses, research has shown that avoiding weight gain is one of the primary ways to reduce their severity. Now, researchers think most of this improvement can be attributed to a reduction in tongue fat, specifically.

These two changes also improved sleep apnea, but not to the same extent as reducing tongue fat, the scientists said.

According to scientists, tongue fat can be a potential therapeutic target for improving sleep apnea. 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. New US research has found that losing weight from a surprising body part-the tongue-could help improve the symptoms of sleep apnea for those suffering from the condition.

Currently, scientists - including those from the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S. - used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to measure the effect of weight loss on the upper airway in obese patients.

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.

Dr Richard Schwab, a sleep specialist from Penn Medicine, told CNN Health: "The question then was if you reduce the fat in your tongue, does that improve your sleep apnoea?".

Sleep apnoea is a common disorder that can cause loud snoring, noisy breathing and jerky movements when asleep.

A new study, from the University of Pennsylvania, found that when people lose weight in their body, they also lose weight in their tongue.

Standard polysomnography and MRI studies were conducted before and after the weight-loss intervention.

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. However, Schwab notes, these types of interventions have not yet been tested. The researchers are also examining whether ultrasound can effectively identify tongue size and tongue fat in large populations.

But the Pennsylvania team said other people with fatty tongues may also be at risk of the sleep disorder. 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.

The study was supported by the NIH.

Other reports by iNewsToday