Predicting obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) in obese adults may be as simple as getting them to “say ahh,” according to a new study published in the journal Sleep.

First, what is OSA? It’s when a person experiences breathing pauses during sleep. It's similar to snoring, but these pauses are a result of narrowed, even completely blocked, airways, that prevent the body from getting enough oxygen. This, according to the National Institutes of Health, signals to the brain it’s time to wake up, and a person will repeatedly do so without knowing it. And these disruptions prevent both deep, restful sleep and a steady heart rate and blood pressure, posing a threat to overall health and well-being. Currently, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASOM) estimated 24 percent of men and nine percent of women have experienced symptoms, while a whopping 80 percent of those with OSA remain diagnosed.

Enter: a person’s tongue. Given obesity is a major risk factor for OSA, researchers administered an MRI to 90 obese adults diagnosed with sleep apnea and 31 obese adults with no reported sleep trouble in order to retrieve a high-resolution image of their upper airways. Per the images, the tongues in those with OSA were larger in size and had an increase in fat deposits compared to their non-OSA counterparts — the first study to ever make such a connection, Dr. Richard J. Schwab, lead study author and co-director of the Penn Sleep Center at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center in Philadelphia, said in a press release. "This work provides evidence of a novel pathogenic mechanism explaining the relationship between obstructive sleep apnea and obesity," he said.

A tongue with more fat isn’t only associated with poor sleep. Researchers added tongue fat (which, who knew was a thing?) "may impair the functioning of the muscles that attach the tongue to bone, preventing these muscles from positioning the tongue away from the airway." Weight loss, upper airway exercises, and surgery are all potential ways to lessen fat deposits, but researchers said additional studies need to be done in order to prove how each, if any, is efffective. Until then, those with OSA, or suspect they may have OSA, can visit the National Healthy Sleep Awareness Project and learn how to alleviate their disorder, as well as raise awareness for those who may not know they have it.

Can't stop sticking out your tongue for inspection? Read up on the additional health cues it's been known to give.

Published by Medicaldaily.com