Thursday, January 6, 2004
People who are obese are susceptible to sleep disorder

By Dr. Anthony Policastro
Nanticoke Memorial Hospital

Professional football is mourning the loss of a great player in Reggie White. There is some controversy as to whether sleep apnea played a part in his death. Last year the New England Journal of Medicine looked at sleep apnea in football players. The rate in the average football player was five times what it was for non-football playing male counterparts. The biggest football players play positions along the offensive and defensive lines. Their rate of apnea was more than double that of football players in general. One out of three linemen had sleep apnea. In 1986, there were 10 professional football players who weighed more than 300 pounds. Today, there are more than 350 players who weigh that much. The word apnea is derived from the words meaning without (“a”) and breath (“pnea”). Individuals with sleep apnea go through periods of stopped breathing while they are asleep. The periods may be associated with an irregular heartbeat. Often the result is tiredness during the day. In children this tiredness can look like loss of attention. Parents may think the child has ADHD because the symptoms are similar.
Other problems from sleep apnea include high blood pressure and heart disease. These occur over a long period of time. You might be thinking that this has nothing to do with you since it is a problem for professional football players. That is not true. About 3 percent of the general population has sleep apnea. Those who are obese are at higher risk just like the football players. The most obvious symptom of sleep apnea is loud snoring at night. Often the individual is asked to sleep in a room by himself/herself because no one in the house can stand the loud noise. There are studies that can be done to diagnose sleep apnea. There are treatments available to help those with the diagnosis. Unfortunately, like so many other disorders, it is important to recognize the symptoms in order to get the treatment. If someone in the family is significantly overweight and snores a lot, it would be a good idea to have an evaluation. The evaluation is done in a sleep lab. The individual goes to a hospital for an overnight stay. He/she is hooked up to a variety of monitoring devices to check breathing, heart and neurologic function. A specialist in reading those studies reviews the results. If the diagnosis is confirmed, then treatment can be started. Reggie White died at age 43. This is not necessarily a problem for older people. Identifying individuals with the problem is the first step. We should all learn a lesson from the problems faced by football players.

Dr. Anthony Policastro is medical director of Nanticoke Memorial Hospital.