02:10 - Source: CNN
Super Bowl champion fights sleep apnea

Story highlights

Aaron Taylor says he noticed at 36 he was waking up exhausted

After a sleep test, he was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea

Sleep apnea can be a life-threatening illness

In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle – injury, illness or other hardship – they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week focuses on former Green Bay Packer Aaron Taylor, one of the millions of Americans who suffers from sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening illness.

CNN —  

I wake up most days with the same goals in mind: Be a good husband. Show my children how much I love them. Perform my job the best I can. Enjoy life.

But at 36, I was also waking up each morning feeling tired – exhausted even – and that fatigue made it difficult to feel like I was meeting my own expectations.

As a former offensive guard in the NFL, I was accustomed to a rigorous schedule and a demanding profession, but I felt like I was burning out already.

I had witnessed friends and teammates struggle with their physical health. In 2004, I lost a friend and former teammate – Green Bay Packers great Reggie White.

Reggie was 43 when he died of a cardiac condition, but he also suffered from a dangerous sleep disorder called obstructive sleep apnea, which may have contributed to his death.

When you have sleep apnea, your throat is constricted or closes up, causing you to choke and gasp for air in your sleep – as many as 100 times each night.

Those of us suffering from sleep apnea and other sleep illnesses often ignore it because at some point we decide to accept being tired as a way of life.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If there’s one thing I could do to honor the memory of my friend, it’s preserve my health and help others do the same.

As many as 12 million to 18 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea, and many don’t know it. Sleep apnea is a potentially life-threatening illness that increases the chance of developing heart disease and diabetes – and big guys such as me and my fellow athletes, as players get bigger and bigger, are among those most at risk.

As a professional athlete, fitness was a big part of my life. But being a “fit” offensive lineman means being bigger than your opponent, and excess body mass is a big warning factor for obstructive sleep apnea. Other warning signs include loud snoring – like I’ve been doing since high school – daytime sleepiness, headaches, high blood pressure and choking or gasping during sleep.

I discussed my symptoms and concerns with my physician and had a sleep test in an accredited sleep center, where I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea.

The recommended treatment is continuous positive airway pressure or CPAP therapy, which involves wearing a mask when you sleep that directs a flow of pressurized air through your airway to keep you breathing more easily.

It was difficult getting used to wearing my CPAP device each night, but I took small steps along the way to adhere to my treatment – such as wearing the mask during the day to adjust to the feel of it – and I started to see a difference in how I felt waking up each morning.

To help promote awareness and treatment of sleep illness and the improvements we can make in our lives to live longer and healthier, I’ve partnered with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. I want to share my story and let people know that my diagnosis and treatment made my life more fulfilling.

Sticking with my treatment, I’m getting more refreshing sleep each night. I’m healthier, happier, more energetic and a better husband and father.

If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, or wake up feeling exhausted, speak with a board-certified sleep medicine physician. They have the proper training and expertise to help you get back on track and can prescribe appropriate treatment when necessary.

To find a sleep physician or accredited sleep center in your area, visit sleepeducation.com.