Sleep apnea can occur in any demographic, but this condition, in which sufferers involuntarily cease to breathe is particularly prevalent among professional football players. Did you know that up to 1/3 of NFL players have sleep apnea? Unfortunately, the very size and strength that allows pro football players to excel at their sport, increases the risk for compromised health off the field. Notably, Reggie White, who played for both the Green Bay Packers and the Philadelphia Eagles died in his early forties. His premature demise was reportedly due, in part, to complications of sleep apnea (see a list of other celebrities who have sleep apnea here).
A recent study, conducted by The New England Journal of Medicine recently tested fifty-two professional players from eight randomly selected NFL teams. The study concluded that obstructive sleep apnea was approximately five times higher in these subjects than in similarly aged adults undergoing the same testing.
What is sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder defined as the cessation of breath during sleep. This leads to reduced oxygen flow and poor sleep quality.
When oxygen levels dip during sleep apnea, the brain signals the body to partially wake up. The person’s sleep is disturbed and he is never allowed to sink into deep, restorative sleep stages. People with severe sleep apnea can go though this process hundreds of times each night. Often, people do not remember this happening and think that they have slept as normal. However, they wake up feeling exhausted, groggy, and unrested.
People suffering from sleep apnea deal with not only the negative effects of sleep deprivation, but also the strain of trying to cope with oxygen deprivation at night. This puts serious strain on the brain, the heart, and the rest of the body.
The complications of sleep apnea for athletes
Professional athletes as well as other people experiencing sleep apnea exhibit decreased reaction time and cognitive impairment while awake, leading to increased risk of accident and injury.
Without treatment, sleep apnea patients are more susceptible to stroke, high blood pressure and heart disease, all of which could potentially result in premature death.
Effects of sleep apnea into retirement
Unfortunately, obstructive sleep apnea is likely to follow football players into retirement even after the end of their careers. According to the American college of Cardiology, a study on 167 retired football players discovered that a staggering sixty percent of them averaged a little more than 18 episodes of disordered sleep each sleeping hour! They also found that 38.5 percent of the same professional players had high blood pressure.
How to treat sleep apnea
The best advice for athletes and non-athletes is to actively manage their health and weight as their physical activity level diminishes. Weight gain, particularly in the neck and chest area, greatly increases the likelihood of sleep apnea.
In order to catch the disorder early, one should watch out for the warning signs; they include snoring or sudden breathing silence, often followed by sounds of gasping or choking. Upon awakening, the sleep apnea sufferer is likely to be forgetful, exhibit low energy or sleepiness, loss of libido or moodiness. Morning headaches are also a common apnea indicator.
Sleep apnea is easily diagnosed at a with an in-center overnight sleep study or with home sleep testing in the comfort of one’s own bed.
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