jennifer hanigan

a pinch of this and a dollop of that

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Fun Fat Fact: Sleep Apnea

Story time!

Once upon a time, my tiny little grandmother and I went on a trip to Portland and shared a hotel room, and I got no sleep at all because I spent the entire night checking to make sure she wasn’t dead.  Why?  Because I realized that when her snoring stopped, so did her breathing, and it’s scientifically proven that people who breathe live longer than people who don’t.  When we got home, she reported this to her doctor, had a sleep study, and was found to stop breathing in her sleep roughly every two minutes.  Why was this not spotted before?  She had all sorts of signs, such as falling asleep in the daytime (at least twice while driving), waking up tired, truly awful snoring, etc.

I’ll tell you why:  She’s not fat.  And “everyone knows” that sleep apnea is much more common in fat people, right?  Must be all that fat forcing the air out of the lungs or something?  Wrong.

Yes, there was a study that said that, and this study got all sorts of attention.  Far more attention, it turns out, than the retraction of the study due to the researcher falsifying the data in order to make his hypothesis magically come true.  This researcher has since gone to work for the pharmaceutical industry, where I’m sure his skills are better appreciated.  Unfortunately, many medical professionals, and the media at large, still believe there’s a link between weight and sleep apnea, and weight loss is even recommended as a treatment.  This becomes a double-edged sword:  fat people are forced through unnecessary testing because it’s assumed they have the disease and/or pressured to lose weight, and thin people aren’t tested and continue to suffer.

This is not an uncommon theme when it comes to the medicalization of fat.  The blaming of fat is incorporated into our cultural outlook, becomes integral to the plot lines of our TV shows, and substitutes for actual medical assessment.  Losing weight, even though it is almost never successful, and often results in a greater regain, is prescribed as a fix for all manner of issues, even though we don’t have a clue about cause and effect.  Nor is it uncommon for research to be falsified or skewed to reach the desired conclusion.  Research has to be funded by somebody, and that somebody generally has an agenda.  The published conclusion often doesn’t tell the same story that the data tells, and the news media doesn’t seem to read beyond their own headlines.

For these reasons and others, it’s important to educate ourselves.  Great books on this subject include Body of Truth by Harriet Brown, and The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos, and I encourage you to read one or both.

Today’s Fun Fat Fact:  Fat does not cause sleep apnea.

(Hey, did you know I’m on Twitter?  Follow me @fearless_jenn)