Indulge me for a moment. Walk outside, stand quietly, and take in a deep breath. What do you smell? What is that that you sense? You know what it is. It’s the coming fall.
I love autumn. Always have. Even though I’ve been (thankfully) out of school for many moons now, the fall season to me is still all about the start of the new school year (now for my kids), intellectual beginnings and renewals, new activities, a prelude to colder weather and the holiday season, and, of course, that great American institution, football.
Truth be told, I’ve always been more of a basketball fan than a football fan, but I thoroughly enjoy a good gridiron game now and then. Our Seattle Seahawks are lookin’ great this year, but I have mixed feelings and loyalties regarding the upcoming preseason rematch with the Green Pay Packers, my first NFL love (having spent 5 years of my childhood in south central Wisconsin). Admittedly, what I love more than the game itself is the feeling of football season: those bright crisp autumn days, the stadiums, the pulse of the marching band (in which I participated all through high school), tailgating parties, communion with close friends while rooting for our team. That nondescript but powerful feeling remains part of why autumn has always been my favorite season.
Why is football pertinent to a discussion regarding sleep, other than sleepless nights from all the excitement? Football players–particularly defensive and offensive linemen–have a particularly high risk of having obstructive sleep apnea, a breathing disorder in which prolonged pauses in breathing–due to closure of the upper airway–are followed by brief arousals from sleep, thus leading to symptoms such as nocturnal sleep disruption and substantial daytime sleepiness and fatigue. Unfortunately, untreated sleep apnea increases the risk for developing heart disease, high blood pressure, and sudden cardiac death during sleep. Reggie White, for example, was a Green Bay Packer whose tragic, unexpected death at 43 years of age has been attributed to sleep apnea.
People often–and mistakenly–presume that you need to be obese to have sleep apnea. Though certainly it is true that being overweight increases your risk of developing sleep apnea because of increased soft tissues surrounding your airway, you don’t need to be obese to have the problem.
Many or most college and professional football players are not necessarily obese, per se, but they tend to be big people, obviously, often with large necks due to hypertrophied neck strap muscles. In general, having a big neck does increase your statistical risk of developing or having sleep apnea. In a clinical setting, the magic number is 17: adults with shirt collar sizes of 17 or higher are at increased risk.
Earlier this month, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine announced its campaign to raise awareness of sleep apnea in football players. CBS Sports college football analyst Aaron Taylor (also formerly a Packers player) is helping the AASM get the word out regarding the importance of diagnosing and treating sleep apnea: he himself has been diagnosed with this disorder, and he has enjoyed substantial clinical benefit from being treated. I appreciate the fact that Mr. Taylor is encouraging athletes to consider sleep apnea diagnosis and management.
To read more of Taylor’s story, click here:
The take-home point here tonight is that certain athletes are at risk of having sleep apnea–such as football players and wrestlers–in part related to increased neck size, even if not due to fat. If you know someone who is a football player, and if that person is a loud snorer who tends to feel tired and sleepy during the day, it may well be beneficial for that person to seek medical attention. Treating sleep apnea can result in dramatic improvements in levels of energy and wakefulness during the day, and may even improve muscular strength and athletic endurance. Then, hopefully, everybody wins: players, families, teams, and fans!
It should be a great football season, y’all, and not a bad prelude to Jayhawk basketball! Cheers, everyone!