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Fat Tongues Boost Sleep Disorders

Update Date: Oct 01, 2014 12:31 AM EDT

Large tongues significantly increase the risk of obstructive sleep apnea in obese adults, according to a new study.

New research reveals that obese adults who suffer the sleep disorder have a significantly larger and fattier tongue than their smaller-tongued counterparts.

Researchers said the latest study is the first to show link larger tongue volumes, tongue fat and percentage of tongue fat to sleep apnea in obese people.

After accounting for age, body mass index, gender and ethnicity, researchers found a specific part of the tongue associated with sleep apnea: the retroglossal region.

"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."

"Tongue size is one of the physical features that should be evaluated by a physician when screening obese patients to determine their risk for obstructive sleep apnea," said American Academy of Sleep Medicine President Dr. Timothy Morgenthaler. "Effective identification and treatment of sleep apnea is essential to optimally manage other conditions associated with this chronic disease, including high blood pressure, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, stroke and depression."

The latest study involved 90 obese adults with sleep apnea and 31 obese controls without the sleep disorder. Researchers believe that large tongues increase the risk of sleep apnea because they impair the functioning of the muscles that attach the tongue to the bone and prevent these muscles from moving the tongue away from the airway.

The findings are published in the Oct. 1 issue of the journal Sleep.

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