Losing Tongue Fat Could Help With Common Sleep Problem

People with a common sleep disorder could improve their symptoms by losing tongue fat, according to a study.

The research involved 67 obese people aged 49 on average with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a condition thought to affect millions of people in the U.S. Their bodies were scanned before after they lost weight over a six-month period, with either lifestyle changes or bariatric surgery to cut down the calories they consumed. The participants lost nearly 10 percent of their body weight, on average.

The team found weight loss decreased tongue fat, and that in turn appeared to reduced the severity of sleep apnea. They published their findings in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Obesity is the biggest risk factor for developing OSA, and in 2014 the team published a study showing obese patients with the disorder had more tongue fat than obese controls without sleep apnea.

"The next logical step was to determine if weight loss decreased tongue fat and improved sleep apnea," co-author Dr. Richard J. Schwab, professor in the department of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center, told Newsweek.

In those with OSA, breathing stops and starts during sleep because the throat muscles relax, blocking the airways. Symptoms of the condition include loud snoring. People may also wake up with a dry throat or mouth, have a headache in the morning, feel excessively sleepy in the day, and find it hard to concentrate.

Schwab acknowledged the study only involved 67 subjects and lasted for a relatively short period of time, therefore longer trials may be necessary to corroborate the findings.

But the results "suggest that tongue fat is a potential new target for sleep apnea therapy," said Schwab. This could be particularly useful for people who can't tolerate a treatment for the condition known as continuous positive airway pressure. This pumps air through a mask work at night to hold open the airways during sleep.

Schwab said those with sleep apnea should try to lose weight and "consider upper airway exercises to potentially reduce tongue fat and improve snoring and sleep apnea."

In 2018, a separate team of scientists found OSA might cause changes in the brain also seen in those with early-stage Alzheimer's disease.

Co-author professor Sharon Naismith, author of the study from Australia's University of Sydney School of Psychology, told Newsweek at the time between 30 to 50 percent of the risk factors of dementia—such as depression, high blood pressure, obesity and smoking—are preventable. So the researchers wanted to understand the potential impact of sleep disorders.

"We found that reduced blood oxygen levels during sleep are related to reduced thickness of the brain's cortex in both the left and right temporal areas, regions that are important in memory and are early sites of injury in Alzheimer's disease," she said.

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