As the findings and subsequent news coverage regarding concussions and brain damage in football, we have all become aware that playing the game may involve more than living with painful injuries – it may involve incurring other life-threatening health problems that develop in later life.

Head injuries are not the only serious risk involved in playing the sport. Studies with professional football players have also shown that sleep apnea, a serious breathing disorder during sleep common in older men, is also common in professional players, and in particular, in linemen.

Now, a study with college-age linemen suggests that the roots of this health problem in football players may begin much earlier, and at an age when the condition is less likely to occur in the general population.

While it is not yet possible to identify the cause of the increased risk, a comparison study with other competitive athletes of the same age implies a relationship between physical conditioning specific to football linemen and the health threat.

The study, "Examination of risk for sleep-disordered breathing among college Football Players," is forthcoming in the Journal of Sports Rehabilitation

"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," noted UNC Charlotte sleep psychologist Jane Gaultney.

Since it would be unexpected to find evidence of any significant occurrence of sleep-disordered breathing in a college-age sample, the study was designed to target the likeliest candidates to detect early signals of the condition. Co-author Joseph Marino noted, "the population of pro football players that were at greatest risk were the linemen. That was why we targeted the college linemen for this particular study."

For a comparison population, the researchers picked track athletes – specifically runners – because their sport tends to demand a lean body-type which would contrast with the standard bulk of the linemen, but with equivalent levels of physical exertion, training, and athleticism.

The researchers' reasoning for the study design is that the most common reason for sleep-disordered breathing – sleep apnea – in older people is fairly well understood and relates to neck structure.

"There is solid correlational data that compares neck circumference and sleep apnea," Marino agreed. "We found when we compared our linemen that there were significantly larger necks compared with our leaner control group and that seemed to pair up well with our data."

The study compared data from the two test groups acquired through the use of the Multivariable Apnea Prediction survey a self-report tool used to screen symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea, as well as physiological measures that have been associated with obstructive sleep apnea.

While the results did not show, a high likelihood of the presence of current sleep-disordered breathing in the college-age football linemen, both self-report and physiological measures suggested significantly greater risk for the disorder in the football players when compared to the track athletes.

Though no studies have been done on the risks for sleep-disordered breathing in college football players after college, the researchers stress that there is a potential problem in life post-play, that may increase the lifetime risk to college-only players.

The physical activity might drop from 3 hours a day to 30 minutes. Especially when 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."

Gaultney stressed that the suspicion that a health intervention might be needed was, in part, what spurred the study. "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."