Tongue Size May Predict Sleep Apnea Risk in Obese Adults


Very few of us pay attention to our tongues. Sure we brush them every morning, but that’s about it. It turns out your tongue size is more important than you thought, and no, we don’t mean in a good way.  A new study shows obese adults with obstructive sleep apnea have significantly larger tongues and percentage of tongue fat than obese adults without sleep apnea, providing another link between obesity and obstructive sleep apnea.

Study results, which are published in the October 1st edition of Sleep journal, showed that obese subjects with sleep apnea had significantly greater tongue volumes, tongue fat, and percentage of tongue fat than obese controls. What’s even more interesting is that researchers found that tongue fat percentage was site specific in participants with sleep apnea, appearing towards the base of the tongue. Good to know the warning signs, right?

Dr. Richard J. Schwab led the investigation, which involved 90 obese participants with sleep apnea and 31 obese controls without sleep apnea. Schwab is a professor in the Department of Medicine and co-director of the Penn Sleep Center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia. All subjects underwent upper airway magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Findings were used to study the size and distribution of upper airway fat deposits in the tongue, accounting for variables such as age, body mass index (BMI), gender and race.


In case you’re still wondering, this study is a game changer for obstructive sleep apnea research and treatment. “This is the first study to show that fat deposits are increased in the tongue of obese patients with obstructive sleep apnea,” Schwabb said. “This work provides evidence of a novel pathogenic mechanism explaining the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and obesity.”

So what’s next? Time to put research into action! “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 can help to manage and minimize risk of other chronic conditions associated with sleep apnea, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, stroke, and depression. And that’s not all we can do.

The authors of the study say future studies should examine the effectiveness of removing tongue fat through weight loss, upper airway exercises or surgery as a potential treatment for sleep apnea. Tongue weight loss programs, anyone?

Before you run to your doctor, EasyBreathe can help. If you’re obese and think you might have sleep apnea,  the Easy Sleep Apnea Test Package allows you to get tested in the comfort of your own home in a shorter time and at a fraction of the cost of going to a sleep lab. Or, if you’ve already been diagnosed, the CPAP Prescription Package is an easy way to renew your CPAP prescription if you’re in need of a new CPAP machine. In as little as 2 business days, you can get a prescription to purchase any CPAP mask, Auto CPAP machine, or CPAP supplies from Easy Breathe. As for the rest of us, time to start those tongue exercises (and yes, we do mean in a good way).


Source: American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Tongue size, fat may predict sleep apnea risk in obese adults.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 September 2014.