Before and after the weight loss intervention, the study participants underwent MRI scans to both their pharynx as well as their abdomens. Then, using a statistical analysis, the research team quantified changes between overall weight loss and reductions to the volumes of the upper airway structures to determine which structures led to the improvement in sleep apnea. The team found that a reduction in tongue fat volume was the primary link between weight loss and sleep apnea improvement.
The study also found that weight loss resulted in reduced pterygoid (a jaw muscle that controls chewing) and pharyngeal lateral wall (muscles on the sides of the airway) volumes. Both these changes also improved sleep apnea, but not to the same extent as the reduction in tongue fat.
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The authors believe that tongue fat is a potential new therapeutic target for improving sleep apnea. They suggest that future studies could be designed to explore whether certain low-fat diets are better than others in reducing tongue fat and whether cold therapies -- like those used to reduce stomach fat -- might be applied to reducing tongue fat. However, Schwab notes, these types of interventions have not yet been tested.
Schwab's team is also examining new interventions and other risk factors for sleep apnea, including whether some patients who are not obese but who have "fatty" tongues could be predisposed to sleep apnea, but are less likely to be diagnosed.
In a recent related study, Schwab found that ethnicity may also play a role in sleep apnea severity. His research team compared the upper airway anatomy of Chinese and Icelandic patients with sleep apnea, and found that, compared to Icelandic patients of similar age, gender, and symptoms, Chinese patients had smaller airways and soft tissues, but bigger soft palate volume with more bone restrictions. This means that Asian patients may generally be more at risk for severe sleep apnea symptoms. The bottom line, according to Schwab, is that all patients who suffer from snoring or sleepiness should be screened for sleep apnea, whether or not they appear to fall into the typical "high-risk" obese categories.
"Primary care doctors, and perhaps even dentists, should be asking about snoring and sleepiness in all patients, even those who have a normal body mass index, as, based on our data, they may also be at risk for sleep apnea," Schwab said.
This study was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. Additional Penn authors include Stephen H. Wang, Brendan T. Keenan, Andrew Wiemken, Yinyin Zang, Bethany Staley, David B. Sarwer, Drew A Torigian, Noel Williams, and Allan I. Pack.Back to HCB News