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Obese Adults With Sleep Disorders Have Larger Tongues

First Posted: Oct 01, 2014 06:15 AM EDT

Researchers find that obese adults battling obstructive sleep apnea have a significantly larger tongue with high percentage of fat.  

The study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine offers an explanation for the association between obstructive sleep apnea and obesity. 

Researchers conducted a study on 90 obese adults with sleep apnea disorder and found that they have a considerably larger tongue with high percentage of fat compared to obese controls without sleep apnea.

Adults with body mass index of 30 and above were considered obese. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 34.9 percent of the U.S. adults are obese. Excessive body weight is recognized as the major predisposing factor for obstructive sleep apnea by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

The study also included 31 obese controls without sleep apnea. All the participants were subjected to high resolution upper airway magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Using sophisticated volumetric reconstruction algorithm, they studied the size and distribution of the upper airway fat deposits in the tongue. Certain factors like age, body mass index, gender and race were taken into consideration.

The researchers noticed a higher percentage of fat on certain specific  areas of the tongue and the percentage of fat increased toward the base of the tongue in the retroglossal region.

According to the researchers, apart from the large tongue size, higher percentage of fat may impair the functioning of the muscle that attaches the tongue to the bone thereby limiting the muscles from positioning the tongue away from the airway.

"This is the first study to show that fat deposits are increased in the tongue of obese patients with obstructive sleep apnea," 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 Philadelphia. "This work provides evidence of a novel pathogenic mechanism explaining the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and obesity."

The finding was documented in the journal Sleep. 

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