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Obstructive Sleep Apnea Believed to Have Contributed to the Death of NFL Legend Reggie White

The tragic death of National Football League legend Reggie White serves as a warning of the grave consequences of untreated sleep apnea.

American Academy of Sleep Medicine
AASM | 12/29/2004

Press Release

Westchester, IL -- The untimely and tragic death last weekend of National Football League legend Reggie White serves as a warning of the grave consequences of untreated sleep apnea, which is reported to have contributed in part to Mr. White’s death.

Obstructive sleep apnea is a very common sleep disorder which not only has a debilitating effect on sleep, but it is also detrimental to overall health and quality of life.

“Mr. White’s premature and sad death is a sad reminder of the toll that is taken by this prevalent condition,” said Michael J. Sateia, M.D., president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and medical director of the sleep center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “However, this disorder is readily treatable.”

Data show that obstructive sleep apnea affects approximately 15 to 20 million Americans, and a majority of individuals suffering from obstructive sleep apnea remain undiagnosed and untreated. Additionally, men are twice as likely as women to have obstructive sleep apnea.

Additional published studies report the prevalence of sleep-disordered breathing among professional football players to be 14 percent and as high as 34 percent in offensive and defensive linemen such as White.

Obstructive sleep apnea consists of repeated episodes of partial or complete upper airway obstruction in sleep, due to relaxation of the muscles that support the upper airway. These episodes of obstruction are associated with repeated arousals from sleep (of which the sleeper is typically unaware) and declines in blood oxygen levels. The pauses in breathing are brief and usually last 10 to 30 seconds; an individual can cease breathing hundreds of times in one night.

According to Sateia, obstructive sleep apnea is most easily recognized by cardinal symptoms.

“Loud snoring and daytime sleepiness, manifest primarily by drowsiness and involuntary dozing in sedentary situations, are the primary indicators of obstructive sleep apnea,” said Sateia.

Obstructive sleep apnea is also predicted by an individual’s body mass index and neck size.

Sateia also detailed the effects of obstructive sleep apnea.

“In addition to the potentially devastating effects on daytime alertness, mood, memory and performance, obstructive sleep apnea is associated with cardiovascular complications, most notably increased risk for high blood pressure,” he said. “Untreated apnea is also associated with higher rates of stroke and heart attack. Some individuals, particularly those with existing lung disease, may develop severe declines in oxygen levels and heart failure.”

Moreover, according to Sateia, obstructive sleep apnea affects the sleep of the bed partner, roommate or others.

“Bed partners are often aware of the repeated episodes of disrupted or absent breathing, and the repeated nighttime awakenings caused by the cessation of breathing and loud snoring also disrupt their sleep,” he said.

Individuals with symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea or another sleep related breathing disorder should consult their primary physician and discuss referral to an AASM-accredited sleep disorders center or laboratory for treatment.

Dr. Sateia notes there are many treatment options available for obstructive sleep apnea.

“The most effective immediate treatment for obstructive sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a device that provides a continuous flow of air pressure within the upper airway, preventing collapse and obstruction,” he said. “Weight reduction, where applicable, is a key long-term strategy and should also be considered in treatment.”

The AASM is the premier professional medical society of clinicians, researchers and other health care providers in the field of sleep medicine.

The AASM is dedicated to the advancement of sleep medicine and related research, and the society’s mission is to assure quality care for patients with sleep disorders, promote the advancement of sleep research and provide public and professional education.

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