While not the direct cause of White's death, sleep apnea was involved in his health issues, and his widow Sara White has been working to raise awareness around the sleep disorder. Now, Taylor’s pairing up with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and following suit, with the goal of promoting earlier testing and treatment among young athletes. We caught up with Taylor to hear about why the cause is close to his heart and how he guarantees his own sound -- and safe -- night's sleep.
How did you get involved with raising awareness for sleep apnea?
I first heard about sleep apnea when a friend and former teammate of mine named Reggie White passed away. He was too young to pass away. We didn't know much more about it than that he died in his sleep. Several years later, my mother was diagnosed and I again heard those words, sleep apnea. I didn't necessarily understand what it was, I just knew it was causing her a lot of health issues.
About five years ago, I was feeling more tired than I should have. I was getting a good night's sleep, I thought. I was in bed for eight hours, but I was waking up essentially feeling hungover -- headaches, I was lethargic, not myself, my thinking was slower than normal. I didn't really think I had sleep apnea, but I wanted to rule it out. I called a friend of mine involved in the San Diego medical world to find out who was the best sleep doctor around. Lo and behold, 18 to 20 times per hour for 20-plus seconds I wasn't breathing at night. I was both shocked and surprised, but at the same time relieved, because that finally explained what was going on with me.
Before that, had you been sleeping well?
I was going to bed at regular bedtimes, and I was in bed for eight-plus hours, but I had been waking up tired for about two years. I had always snored, but nobody told me I stopped breathing at night. The diagnosis was really important not only because it put on the table what I had, but also that it was treatable.
How are you treating it?
I use the gold standard for sleep apnea care, CPAP therapy. When I'm at home I wear the mask, and when I'm on the road I get to wear a mouthpiece, which isn't as cumbersome to travel with.
Why do you think it's particularly important to teach young people about sleep apnea?
It's not just an old person's disease, it's a physical obstruction of the airway. Based on the body that you're born with, you can be subject to having it. It's not just the 50-year-old guy we all picture -- I was in my 30s! Our kids are getting bigger, faster. Being forewarned is being fore-armed. Creating awareness can go a significant way in reducing the rates of incidence. And if they are inflicted, they can get diagnosed and treated earlier in the process, because the longer it goes undiagnosed the more significant damage it can cause.
Young people probably don't have a spouse to tell them they're not breathing at night.
True, but in the football community you're always staying with roommates or sleeping over a buddy's house in high school. It's not just about awareness for the people that might have it, but educating friends, buddies, loved ones goes a long way as well. Those are the people who can say, "I heard you stopped breathing a couple times last night, are you OK? Have you ever heard of sleep apnea?" That's literally saving people's lives.
How important to you was sleep while you were playing in the NFL?
We all prided ourselves on burning the candle at both ends. I was young and chose to party a lot. What I didn't know then was how important sleep was, not only to my overall health but to my performance on the field. I didn't know how critical it was that my brain be rested to be able to make those split-second decisions. I greatly underestimated sleep, and diet, too. Now, as a 40-year-old retired guy, those are among some of the most important things in my own health profile -- diet, exercise and sleep.
To the younger generation, in football we all have this sense of invincibility. We never think about the fact that we're at some point not going to play this game. We're taught not to even think about next week's game because it's a distraction, so the last thing that's on a high school football player's mind is what's going to happen to them when they're 40. But they're getting bigger and stronger and faster at younger ages, and as a result of that, it wouldn't shock me if sleep apnea rates increase in younger people. In certain cases, having a big neck and chest and playing offensive and defensive line can put you at risk.
I think it's important that we not only put it on people's radars but invite them to do something about it. Talk with a loved one you think might have it. See your primary care physician, or a sleep specialist. [Note: The AASM recommends visiting SleepEducation.com to find an accredited sleep center near you.]
Don't forget that in myself and in many, many others this is a treatable condition. I often ask people that have been diagnosed but aren't compliant on the therapy, "How long do you want to put your life and happiness on hold?" This has allowed me to be a better father, husband, analyst. If I didn't treat my sleep apnea, I arguably could not do any of those jobs efficiently enough to keep them. It really has restored my life, and I strongly encourage people who suspect they have it or have people in their lives they think have it to do something about it.
--As told to Sarah Klein
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and length.