According to a recent Detroit Free Press article, a team of researchers at the Sleep Center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center has discovered another connection between obesity and sleep apnea. The study showed a prevalence of “fat tongue” among obese people with sleep apnea and how a fat tongue may be a contributing factor.

Study Findings

The researchers studied two groups of 90 obese adults: one with sleep apnea and one without sleep apnea. The group with sleep apnea were found to have significantly larger tongues, with a higher amount and percentage of fat at the base of their tongues than the group without sleep apnea.

The researchers concluded that this fat at the base of the tongue could prevent the muscles that attach the tongue to bone from moving the tongue away from the airway during sleep, triggering a sleep apnea episode.

The study showed an association between sleep apnea and tongue fat but could not provide any evidence of cause and effect. The researchers feel that future studies should assess if reducing tongue fat would be effective in treating sleep apnea.

The American Academy Sleep Medicine recommends that doctors evaluate tongue size when determining the risk of sleep apnea in obese patients.

Obesity and Sleep Apnea

Obese and overweight individuals are especially at risk for sleep apnea because they tend to have a higher amount of body fat in the neck area. Excess neck fat may block the upper airway, especially when a person is lying down.

A person at a healthy body weight but with a large neck can also be at a higher risk for sleep apnea. Losing weight may minimize your risk for sleep apnea and may reduce symptoms if you already have sleep apnea.

Signs You Should Not Ignore

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:

  • Very loud and frequent snoring
  • Snoring accompanied by breathing pauses, choking or gasping
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Unable to focus or concentrate
  • Mood swings
  • Hypertension

Obesity by itself increases your risk for life-threatening health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and stroke. The risk is even higher when combined with sleep apnea.

If you are overweight and suspect you may have sleep apnea, see your doctor, no matter how minor your symptoms seem. The sooner sleep apnea is diagnosed and treated, the better for your physical, emotional, mental and sleep health. It is always better to error on the side of caution when it comes to your well-being.