OSA linked to death of NFL veteran

Monday, January 31, 2005

HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. - Legendary NFL football player Reggie White died Dec. 26 possibly from a respiratory disease and other health problems, including obstructive sleep apnea, according to a preliminary autopsy.
Chris Bober, an offensive lineman in the NFL, gets tested for OSA. Despite a high prevalence among football players, his results came out negative.

The 43-year-old White most likely had a condition that affected the amount of air his lungs could hold, resulting in “fatal cardiac arrhythmia,” according to a medical examiner’s report. The report also said sleep apnea may have been a factor.

White, known as the “Minister of Defense,” retired from the Green Bay Packers in 2000 as the NFL’s all-time sack leader and was considered healthy and vibrant. But at 6’5" and 300 pounds, he also was a prime candidate for sleep apnea.

With sleep apnea and its causes and conditions in the manistream media, some sleep doctors expect to see a bump in business.

“I know some centers started receiving far more calls about sleep apnea [the week that Reggie White died],” said Kathleen McCann, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “His death is bringing awareness of the disease. People are identifying with the symptoms that are being reported, and they think to themselves, ‘Hey, that’s me.’”

Following White’s death, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) issued a press release warning of the dangers of undiagnosed sleep apnea, which itself is rarely fatal but contributes to a host of other problems, including hypertension and an increased risk of stoke and other cardiovascular complications.

An estimated 15 to 20 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, and a majority of those individuals remain undiagnosed and untreated, according to the AASM. Additionally, men are twice as likely as women to have obstructive sleep apnea.

The prevalence of the disorder is strikingly high among NFL vets. According to a 2002 study conducted by ResMed and SleepTech and published in the New England Journal of Medicine, 14% of 300 NFL football players tested had OSA, nearly five times higher than among similarly aged adults. A whopping 34% of the larger, more high-risk players (lineman) were diagnosed with the disorder.

Vyto Kab, a co-managing director of SleepTech Consulting group, which managed the study, suggests the potential for the disorder in NFL players is growing since sleep apnea is often associated with large body masses. Kab, himself a former NFL tight end, says there are at least 350 active players over 300 pounds in the league today - up from 10 in 1986, according to USA Today.

Some in the industry say athletes are paying the price for the size they attain, making the disorder an “occupational hazard” in the NFL. The disorder may become an even bigger problem once the players retire.

“Once they retire, they might not be as active, won’t lose the weight, and it could get worse,” Kab said to USA Today. “And if left untreated, sleep apnea can be a lead-in to hypertension, which can be a lead-in to congestive heart failure.”