Sleep Apnea Is Silent Player in Super Bowl Championship


Officials at National Sleep Foundation and UNM Sleep Disorders Center Say Recent Death of Reggie White Spotlights Underreporting of Common Sleep Disorder

As millions of Americans sit down to watch the Super Bowl game on Sunday, they are probably unaware that many players on the field are at risk for sleep apnea, a dangerous, potentially life-threatening sleep disorder thought to be a complicating factor in the death of former NFL player Reggie White.  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 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 Lee Brown, M.D., director of the UNM Sleep Disorders Center.  "Sleep apnea is a very common, but often undiagnosed disorder.  If left untreated, it can lead to life threatening illness such as heart disease, hypertension and stroke."

A 2003 The New England Journal of Medicine study of study of NFL players showed 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.  

"Often bed partners are the first to notice a problem, and can encourage those with disordered breathing during sleep to get it checked," said Brown.  "The good news is that sleep apnea can be successfully treated and 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.  It has been under the radar as a public health issue."  Richard L. Gelula, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation (NSF).  "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.  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."

   More information about sleep apnea and other sleep disorders may be found at the National Sleep Foundation website,  or contact the UNM Sleep Disorders Center at 272-6110.

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.

Contact: Cindy Foster, 272-3322

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