October 02, 2023 3 min read
When talking about snoring, most picture a middle-aged man who may be overweight and sedentary. And they wouldn’t be wrong. Studies indeed show that snoring is more prevalent in this group .
Knowing this, many also assume that athletes, being young, healthy, and physically fit, are immune to this problem. But turns out that’s not the case. Study after study shows that many athletes not only snore but suffer from sleep apnea — a more serious sleep-related breathing disorder. But why is this so?
There are many risk factors for snoring and sleep apnea, and turns out being an athlete is one of them.
A 2003 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found a 14-34% prevalence of sleep-disordered breathing among professional football players . Compared to the 4% prevalence found in the general population, these numbers are striking.
A 2016 study in the European Journal of Sport Science confirmed a higher risk of snoring and sleep apnea among rugby sevens, rugby union, and cricket athletes . A striking 38% of the athletes in this study claimed they were snorers, while 8% even witnessed apnea episodes.
NFL players seem to be especially prone to this problem. A scoping review published in theJournal of Sleep Disorders & Therapy found an above 50% prevalence of sleep apnea in retired NFL linemen .
Snoring and sleep apnea happen when the upper airway becomes obstructed. Reasons for this obstruction are often lax throat muscles or excess fat in the neck area, both common in older, sedentary, and overweight folks. Athletes are usually lean, muscular, and generally healthy, so why is snoring such an issue for them?
According to the scoping review mentioned earlier, today’s NFL players are heavier than ever, with the average linemen weighing over 300 lbs. Collision sports athletes usually have a higher BMI and larger neck circumference, both of which are known risk factors for sleep apnea. This may explain why this problem hasn’t been documented in non-contact sports.
Snoring is usually harmless, but it can be one of the first signs of sleep apnea. The repeated pauses in breathing we see in sleep apnea disrupt normal sleep and put sufferers at risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, and other health problems. In the worst-case scenario, it can lead to early death.
According to a 2019 study led by Japanese researchers, sleep-disordered breathing may be the reason behind sudden and unexplained heart attacks we’ve been seeing lately in young athletes . We also know that sleep apnea has contributed to the death of Reggie White, who played professionally for the Philadelphia Eagles and the Green Bay Packers.
Sleep apnea causes low blood oxygen levels and frequent awakenings and thus fragmented sleep. Both problems overstimulate the body’s stress response, cause oxidative stress, and lead to low-grade inflammation — all of which can damage the cardiovascular system [6,7].
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