Sleep Apnea and the NFL

The NFL and sleep apnea have long been associated in the popular consciousness, with many former players like former Green Bay Packers and San Diego Chargers lineman Aaron Taylor publicly discussing their struggles with the condition.

Highlighting this connection, an Arizona-based orthodontic technician grabbed headlines with a blitz of press releases claiming that sleep apnea is one of the primary health risks faced by professional football players.

The organization behind the PR campaign, the Pro Player Health Alliance, is backed by a roster of elite former NFL players, including Super Bowl-winning players Tony Dorsett and Derek Kennard. The group claims that more than “60% of former NFL players suffer from sleep apnea,” citing a 2009 Mayo Clinic study, “Mayo Clinic Finds Retired National Football League Players at Increased Risk for Heart Problems,” as its source. (The original study clarifies that this figure is specific to NFL linemen, and not all professional football players.)

The cardiologist who largely guided the study noted that “the prevalence of sleep apnea and obesity was higher than expected, and serves as a warning that athletes need to monitor their weight and health carefully when they retire, a time when physical activity levels may begin to decline abruptly.”

The following year “Retired NFL Players at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease,” another study by the Mayo Clinic and the Living Heart Foundation, also suggested a connection between NFL players and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). “The increased body size typical of these men may be of concern, as well as obesity-related conditions such as metabolic syndrome and obstructive sleep apnea that have been reported in professional football players,” said R. Todd Hurst, M.D. of Cardiovascular Diseases at Mayo Clinic in announcing the results of that 2010 study.

That’s alarming news for football players and their loved ones, but their risk for sleep apnea seems to be more connected to retired athletes’ tendencies toward obesity than the well-known health hazards faced by professional football players, which include such serious conditions as cardiovascular disease and injuries to the brain.

There are some frightening exceptions. All-Pro wide receiver Percy Harvin isn’t the least bit obese, nor is he anywhere near retirement. But at the age of 22, Harvin was diagnosed with sleep apnea in connection with some more alarming health issues, including serious migraine headaches and a collapse during practice.

There’s also Hall of Famer Reggie White, whose 2004 death has often (and with some controversy) been linked to OSA, although a definite link has never been fully established.

“A medical examiner’s report says White ‘mostly likely’ died from an inflammation of his lungs and heart but also says sleep apnea may have contributed,” reported USA Today in the days following White’s death.

“Reggie White (the great Hall of Fame defensive lineman) is the classic case,” said Rolf Benirschke, a former NFL kicker who has suffered from sleep apnea and who teamed up with us in 2011 to publicize OSA’s health risks.

“[White] had sleep apnea, and he died with the S.A. (CPAP) machine at his bedside, unused,” Benirschke told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2011.

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