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Weight-loss surgery helps drop pounds, but it may not cure sleep apnea

August 20, 2008 |  5:20 pm

Weight-loss surgery has proven to be a boon for some people who find that the speedy reduction in pounds also helps improve related health issues such as diabetes.

Sleep apnea is another disorder that can be improved by weight loss — but it’s not a guaranteed cure.

Sleep1That's the conclusion of a recent study that found that weight-loss surgery may not always completely eradicate symptoms for those who suffer from the condition, in which people stop breathing frequently during sleep for as long as a minute or more, resulting in poor sleep quality. Excess weight promotes extra tissue in the upper airways, narrowing air passageways and triggering apnea.

The study, published in the Aug. 15 issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, tracked 24 patients for a year following bariatric surgery. On average, they went from having a body mass index of 51 to 32. Although some reported a reduction in severity of their apnea, the majority still had residual symptoms.

"There are tremendous benefits to weight loss," says lead author Dr. Christopher Lettieri, chief of sleep medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. "One is the improvement of severity of sleep apnea, but some people with sleep apnea will have a persistence of the disease." Other studies have suggested that weight loss does improve apnea symptoms; one, in the journal Sleep in 2007, found that symptoms improved markedly after a two-year follow-up after weight-loss surgery.

The danger, says Lettieri, is in patients assuming that bariatric surgery will cure the condition, or reduce it enough to stop treatment. Some people, he fears, may believe they’re sleeping better, leading them to stop using their CPAP machines, which push air through the body’s airway passages to prevent apnea.

Adds Lettieri, "It doesn’t take away from the fact that you still need to treat it."

-- Jeannine Stein

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