Sleep apnea hits even young athletes
Hidden disorder shortens lifespan, hurts performance
Tom Spears The Ottawa Citizen
Thursday, January 23, 2003
Many players in Sunday's Super Bowl suffer from sleep apnea without knowing it, a Canadian discovery that suggests society's heavyweights suffer more from the breathing disorder than anyone realizes.
"We believe it affects their performance," said Dr. Charles George, a respirologist at the University of Western Ontario who led the study.
And he's hoping the players will accept treatment in order to gain an edge on the field, with the added benefit of living longer.
People with sleep apnea stop breathing temporarily in their sleep. Large men are the most common sufferers. While these men don't stop breathing for good, they do sleep poorly and suffer fatigue, poor reactions and a lack of mental focus and sharpness -- all qualities that football players need.
Doctors have believed for years the disorder is found mainly among older men who aren't in good physical shape. But the new study from Western says younger, fitter men may be at high risk, too.
The Western study examined 300 National Football League players from eight teams last year and found 14 per cent of them have sleep apnea that was never diagnosed. That's five times more than the doctors expected. And when they looked at the biggest and heaviest players -- the linemen -- they found an even bigger shock: Thirty-four per cent of them have sleep apnea.
If these well-trained athletes suffer from the potentially serious disorder, the study concludes, there's probably a large number of cases going undiagnosed among young men throughout the population.
People with this disorder are at higher risk of hypertension, coronary artery disease and stroke. In severe cases, patients must go to bed wearing a mask that pumps oxygen into their airways and keeps their throats from closing up. But it's the slightly slower reaction times and the feelings of fatigue that George wants to explain to the players with sleep apnea.
Even if slow reaction time is only measured in milliseconds, "it still may count on the field," he said. "That's where we get buy-in from the players. They don't care about hypertension 10 years down the road. They care about having an edge and winning games now."
The study is published in today's New England Journal of Medicine.
George started the survey because a colleague who runs a sleep diagnostic lab in New Jersey, Vito Kab, is a former NFL tight end from the 1970s and 1980s. Kab remembers teammates who had trouble sleeping and breathing.
With the NFL's co-operation, the medical team examined 300 players from the Chicago Bears, Jacksonville Jaguars, New England Patriots, New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans and Washington Redskins. Team doctors and trainers helped with the study.
"The study suggests strongly that sleep apnea be considered as a possible condition for larger patients under 30 years of age," George said.
Sleep apnea has been associated with high blood pressure, inefficient metabolism and immune deficiencies. It is nearly as common as diabetes or asthma.
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