Feb 27, 2018
Losing Sleep

According to an article from ScienceDaily, a recent study’s findings suggest that college football linemen may face an increased risk of developing sleep apnea. This may stem from training that aims to increase bulk, including neck circumference.

Previous research has shown an increased likelihood of sleep apnea among professional football players. The recent study with college student-athletes was based on this knowledge and conducted by a team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

“At the professional level, there have been two studies — one for retired football players and one for current — that showed they were at greater risk for sleep-disorder breathing,” Jane Gaultney, PhD, Sleep Psychologist at UNC Charlotte and one of the study’s authors, said.

“We wondered if that tendency [for sleep-disorder breathing] was also visible at the college level, because college is, in some sense, a window of opportunity when you can educate people on health risks,” Dr. Gaultney continued.

Along with the football players, the researchers assessed track athletes as a comparison group. Runners were the focus due to the lean body type that is typically demanded by the sport.

The data from the two groups centered on the Multivariable Apnea Prediction survey, which has respondents self-report symptoms. Physiological measures — including neck circumference, space between the base of the tongue and roof of the mouth, and tonsil size — were also taken.

“What was interesting about the data from the football players is that even at the college level — these are young healthy people — you wouldn’t expect them to have health problems,” Dr. Gaultney said. “Football linemen are athletes, and they are working out all the time — and yet the working out that they are doing, the body configuration that they are building, may simultaneously be increasing their risk for sleep-disorder breathing. It’s not a fat issue — there is not much body fat in their case, it’s mainly bulk.”

However, after they stop playing, the muscle built up can easily turn to fat. This can lead to greater risk of sleep apnea.

“The chances are that most college football players are not going to the NFL, and when they stop playing college football, their physical activity might drop off,” Joseph S. Marino, PhD, Exercise Physiologist at UNC Charlotte and one of the study’s authors, said. “When there’s a lapse in physical activity, the gain in fat tissue is from reduced physical activity while maintaining the caloric consumption. When they were training, they had to maintain caloric consumption to keep up with their physical activity. The physical activity might drop from 3 hours a day to 30 minutes. Especially then, we talk about athletes that tend to carry more fat mass — they had accumulated more to begin with, and now they are not burning as much on top of that. If that is not modified, then sleep apnea is one of the many possible consequences.”

The risk is especially pronounced for linemen. Within this study, their neck circumferences were significantly larger than what was seen in the control group. This is relevant to sleep apnea because the condition typically occurs from a collapsing airway, which can happen with a younger adult who has a large neck.

“You can alert people that if they continue on this path, the likelihood is they are going to graduate, and they are not going to be as active as when involved in their collegiate sport, leading to an increase in fat accumulation,” Dr. Gaultney said. “That can mean that they are already on the path to sleep disordered breathing, even if they don’t have it now. If people understand this, they can modify their outcomes — they can change and be healthier.”

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