By: Brenda Neugent
NFL fans were stunned when football legend Reggie White – known as the Minister of Defense throughout his career with the Green Bay Packers – died in 2004 at the age of 43 from issues related to obstructive sleep apnea.
A problem that disrupts the healthy sleep of millions of Americans and puts them at risk of a host of health problems, sleep apnea is especially common among former pro football players, experts say, although like most of the population, they usually don’t know they have it.
To raise awareness of the devastating and potentially deadly disorder, Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Warren Sapp has teamed up with sleep apnea expert Dr. Jonathan Greenburg on National Sleep Apnea Awareness Day April 18 to launch the Sleep Apnea Prevention Project, cleverly known as SAPP for short.
The project is designed to encourage the 80 percent of Americans – including former NFL players – with undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnea to get tested. Left unchecked, the disorder can lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, depression and high blood pressure. (Partners of those with sleep apnea are also at risk. Sharing a bed with someone with apnea or the loud snoring it can trigger can cause chronic fatigue, irritability, depression, obesity, diabetes and some cancers.)
Different than snoring, obstructive sleep apnea is caused by blockages of the airways during sleep, often from excess tissue in the throat or muscles that have grown slack with age. Those who have it essentially stop breathing during sleep, sometimes as many as a hundred times a night, which prevents the deep, restorative sleep that is essential to good health. Instead of waking refreshed, they wake up exhausted.
Awareness is especially important, because despite the warning signs – snoring, daytime exhaustion, headaches and sexual dysfunction among them – many of those living with sleep apnea have no idea. Usually, a partner who hears her mate gasping for breath in the night is the one who reports the problem.
Because obstructive sleep apnea is often linked to obesity, it makes sense that it is an especially big risk for former NFL players, who are encouraged to beef up during their playing years but are plagued with obesity in retirement.
With former players already facing a shortened life span from their years on the field – a former NFL linebacker is statistically unlikely to live past 51, says Sapp – stopping obstructive sleep apnea in its tracks could improve those numbers.
“Based on my vast experience with the treatment of snoring and sleep apnea, it is safe to say that a staggering number of professional athletes and football players like Warren Sapp suffer from sleep apnea,” said Greenburg. “Sadly, untreated apnea is an absolute killer; however, the condition can be safely treated with proper guidance, while improving performance and quality of life. If Reggie White’s sleep apnea was properly treated, he may still be here today.”
While sleep apnea is often diagnosed through a sleep study, Greenburg recommends home sleep studies rather than the traditional in-hospital studies, in part because the single-night clinical study may miss signs of apnea that don’t show up every night. Too, the home study is cheaper and more comfortable, so participants are more likely to experience normal sleep.
After a diagnosis is made, apnea can be treated in a variety of ways, including surgery to remove excess tissue, a CPAP machine or Greenburg’s ZYPPAH oral appliance therapy, a patent-pending device that is used in the mouth to help ease breathing.
The treatment itself is easy, Greenburg said, but given the vast numbers of people who suffer from sleep apnea and don’t know it, raising awareness to encourage people to be diagnosed is the most important step toward treating the problem.
“With Warren’s help, we are embarking on a mission to raise awareness among professional athletes and the masses. With mandatory sleep testing and a simple device like ZYPPAH, athletes will perform better, react quicker and live longer,” Greenburg said.
For more information on the Sleep Apnea Prevention Project, visit www.sappcares.com.