Effect of Weight Loss on Upper Airway Anatomy and the Apnea-Hypopnea Index. The Importance of Tongue Fat

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2020 Mar 15;201(6):718-727. doi: 10.1164/rccm.201903-0692OC.


Rationale: Obesity is the primary risk factor for obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Tongue fat is increased in obese persons with OSA, and may explain the relationship between obesity and OSA. Weight loss improves OSA, but the mechanism is unknown.Objectives: To determine the effect of weight loss on upper airway anatomy in subjects with obesity and OSA. We hypothesized that weight loss would decrease soft tissue volumes and tongue fat, and that these changes would correlate with reductions in apnea-hypopnea index (AHI).Methods: A total of 67 individuals with obesity and OSA (AHI ≥ 10 events/h) underwent a sleep study and upper airway and abdominal magnetic resonance imaging before and after a weight loss intervention (intensive lifestyle modification or bariatric surgery). Airway sizes and soft tissue, tongue fat, and abdominal fat volumes were quantified. Associations between weight loss and changes in these structures, and relationships to AHI changes, were examined.Measurements and Main Results: Weight loss was significantly associated with reductions in tongue fat and pterygoid and total lateral wall volumes. Reductions in tongue fat were strongly correlated with reductions in AHI (Pearson's rho = 0.62, P < 0.0001); results remained after controlling for weight loss (Pearson's rho = 0.36, P = 0.014). Reduction in tongue fat volume was the primary upper airway mediator of the relationship between weight loss and AHI improvement.Conclusions: Weight loss reduced volumes of several upper airway soft tissues in subjects with obesity and OSA. Improved AHI with weight loss was mediated by reductions in tongue fat. New treatments that reduce tongue fat should be considered for patients with OSA.

Keywords: apnea–hypopnea index; obstructive sleep apnea; upper airway; weight loss.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Obesity / complications*
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / etiology*
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / physiopathology*
  • Tongue / anatomy & histology*
  • Tongue / physiology*
  • United States / epidemiology
  • Weight Loss / physiology*