Famed NFL defensive player Reggie White and I had a lot in common. Not the part about being called pro football’s “Minister of Defense” and being a first ballot inductee into the National Football League Hall of Fame. Those accomplishments are Reggie’s alone. But there are some things we shared:
- Grew up in Chattanooga, Tennessee
- Attended Howard High School
- Captain of the Howard Hustlin’ Tigers football team
- Graduate of the University of Tennessee
- Minister of the Gospel
- Victim of sleep apnea
I’m proud to say I shared all these characteristics with Reggie — except that I’m not at all proud of the last one. You see, Reggie’s sleep apnea condition, which I share, was a major contributing factor to his dying in his sleep in 2004 at the age of 43.
Sleep apnea can lead to early death
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a very serious medical condition that causes a person to stop breathing in their sleep. This can occur hundreds of times throughout the night, causing the sufferer to briefly awake each time gasping for air. OSA occurs when throat muscles relax during sleep, allowing soft tissue in the throat to collapse and block the passage of air.
According to Frisca Yan-Go, medical director of the UCLA Sleep Disorder Center at Santa Monica Hospital, OSA is not itself a killer. But it has been found to be a major contributing factor to health risks that do kill, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke. People with untreated sleep apnea have a mortality rate three times that of those who don’t have the condition.
Most victims of sleep apnea don’t know they have it
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about sleep apnea is that most people don’t realize that their symptoms of loud snoring at night and sleepiness during the day indicate the presence of a life-threatening but treatable condition. A medicalnewsservice.com article reports that according to Dr. Bruce B. Baird, founder of the Dental Organization for Sleep Apnea, 95 percent of those who suffer from sleep apnea don’t realize they have it.
Reggie White did realize he had OSA, and sought treatment. But he was not able to use the most effective treatment, CPAP therapy.
Effective treatment is available
CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) therapy uses a machine that restores an OSA sufferer’s air flow by injecting positive air pressure into the patient’s throat through a mask, forcing the blocked passages to open. When a CPAP machine is used consistently, it is highly effective in eliminating most of the adverse effects of OSA.
According Reggie’s wife Sara, quoted in the medicalnewsservice.com article cited above, her husband was unable to use a CPAP machine because his claustrophobia did not allow him to sleep with the CPAP mask on his face. Dentists can now prescribe oral appliances to relieve OSA for those who cannot use CPAP. Sara, cofounder of the Reggie White Sleep Disorders Foundation, says she is convinced that had Reggie known about these oral appliances for sleep apnea, he might still be alive today.
Snoring loud at night and drowsy during the day? Get tested for sleep apnea!
There are millions of us who share the condition Reggie had. But we don’t have to share his fate. The lesson of Reggie White’s tragic death is that sleep apnea, when it goes untreated, can lead directly to very dangerous, potentially lethal health consequences.
If you have the characteristic symptoms of OSA, loud snoring and awakening multiple times during the night, along with sleepiness during the day, please go immediately to your doctor and get tested for sleep apnea! It just might save your life.
Other resources regarding sleep apnea
“Shaq Attacks Sleep Apnea” video starring basketball star Shaquille O’Neal
Snoring Hard at Night and Sleepy During the Day? Get Tested for Sleep Apnea
Sleep Apnea Puts African Americans Who Refuse to Use a CPAP Machine at Risk