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Sleep Apnea Is Silent Player in NFL Super Bowl Championship

Armen Hareyan's picture

Sleep Apnea Symptoms

National Sleep Foundation and Minneapolis Regional Sleep Disorders Center (MRSDC) at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) Say Recent Death of Reggie White Spotlights Underreporting of Common Sleep Disorder

As millions of Americans sit down to watch the Super Bowl game they are probably unaware that many players on the field are at risk for a dangerous, potentially life-threatening sleep disorder, sleep apnea. It is thought to be a complicating factor in the death of former NFL player Reggie White, and in fact its prevalence among NFL players is higher than that in the general population. And players aren't the only ones at risk; millions of other men, women and even children may also have undiagnosed symptoms.

"What we didn't know until fairly recently is that young, physically fit men such as those who play professional football are five times more likely to have sleep apnea than those of the same age in the general population," said Richard L. Gelula, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). Sleep apnea is a very common, but often undiagnosed disorder that, left untreated, can lead to life threatening illness such as heart disease, hypertension and stroke. "Reggie White's untimely death tragically reminds us all of the importance of paying attention to our sleep habits, such as snoring, which can be a symptom of sleep apnea," said Gelula.

A study of NFL players published in The New England Journal of Medicine (January 23, 2003) showed that 14% of the players had sleep apnea, and that number rose to 34% for linemen, who are considered to be at higher risk because of their size. The study concluded that young men with large necks and high body mass, like many NFL players, are at high risk for sleep apnea, but often don't seek treatment because their age and physical condition is otherwise healthy.

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"Often bed partners are the first to notice a problem, and can encourage those with disordered breathing during sleep to get it checked," according to Mark Mahowald, MD, medical director of the MRSDC. "The good news is that sleep apnea can be successfully treated," Mahowald added, "and that treatment has been shown to reduce the risk of other life threatening diseases."

As many as 18 million Americans are estimated to suffer from sleep apnea. The sleep disorder is characterized by cessation of breathing, followed by gasping for air throughout the night. Often sufferers have loud, persistent snoring, and may be awakened by a choking sensation, as they try to get air. Because of the many "apneic" episodes, sleep is interrupted; excessive sleepiness during wake times and frequent headaches often result. The poor quality sleep can mean diminished quality of performance, including a lack of concentration, memory difficulties and irritability.

"Many Americans suffer from sleep apnea, but have not been treated," said Gelula. "It has been under the radar as a public health issue." Gelula added that the Super Bowl, and remembrances of the former Green Bay Packer star, provide an opportunity to focus on this life threatening sleep disorder. "We hope that all Americans, along with NFL players and the League, will honor Reggie White's life by recognizing that their sleep is important, and that they should consult a doctor if they have symptoms of sleep apnea," said Gelula.

More information about sleep apnea and other sleep disorders may be found at the National Sleep Foundation website, www.sleepfoundation.org

The National Sleep Foundation is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public health and safety by achieving understanding of sleep and sleep disorders, and by supporting education, sleep-related research and advocacy.

Hennepin County Medical Center is a public acute care, research, and teaching hospital repeatedly recognized by U.S. News & World Report as one of America's Best Hospitals. HCMC offers a full spectrum of inpatient and outpatient services, including a number of regional centers such as the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center.