When one of his close friends passed away prematurely from sleep apnea, Aaron Taylor, experienced first-hand how obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) can have devastating consequences.

Mediaplanet: Although millions are suffering from sleep apnea, it is often ignored and left untreated. What was it that finally motivated you to get tested for this potentially serious sleep disorder? What symptoms were you experiencing that finally led you to get tested?

Aaron Taylor: Before my diagnosis, I woke up exhausted each morning and never felt refreshed or fully-rested. I knew I needed to make a change, so I spoke with my doctor about my symptoms and we decided I may have a sleep problem. I knew sleep problems could, and did, affect anyone – my friend and former teammate, Reggie White, passed away at the age of 43 from a cardiac condition that was worsened by his obstructive sleep apnea. Remembering his struggle, I decided to undergo a sleep evaluation.

The sleep evaluation really explained my symptoms and exhaustion. Each night, my sleep apnea caused me to stop breathing about 20 times per hour for 20 seconds each time. When you add it up, that was almost an hour every night that I wasn’t breathing. I was depriving my body of the oxygen it needs. It was extremely hard on my heart and the rest of my body, and it explained why I was so tired and never woke up feeling refreshed.

"Each night, my sleep apnea caused me to stop breathing about 20 times per hour for 20 seconds each time...that was almost an hour every night that I wasn’t breathing."

MP: After being diagnosed with moderate obstructive sleep apnea, what type of therapies and treatment options did you seek?

AT: Upon my diagnosis, I was prescribed continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy, which is the top treatment recommended by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) for obstructive sleep apnea. It provides a steady stream of air through a mask that you wear during sleep to keep your airway open.

Because my job involves a lot of travel, I also use oral appliance therapy. It’s a custom fit, “mouth guard-like” device worn only when sleeping, that keeps your airway open so you can breathe easily and consistently while you sleep.

MP: What steps did you take to incorporate CPAP therapy into your regular routine?

AT: Wearing a mask at night certainly required some adjustment, but the health benefits and increased energy throughout the day far outweighed the temporary and initial discomfort. To get used to wearing the mask at night, I would put it on during the day for stationary activities – like watching TV. Then, when I put the mask on before bed, I was accustomed to the feeling and it didn’t distract me from falling asleep.

MP: What benefits have you experienced from using CPAP therapy?

AT: The simple answer is I just feel great! It’s a huge improvement to wake up feeling well-rested after spending so many mornings feeling exhausted – and it’s something I can truly appreciate. My treatment also improved my concentration and increased my physical energy. But perhaps most importantly, effective treatment of my obstructive sleep apnea has decreased my risk of developing other serious medical problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes.

MP: Being a former NFL Player for the Green Bay Packers, it is clear that teamwork was definitely important in order for you to be successful in your career. How did a team approach help you succeed in your therapy?

AT: My wife is a huge proponent and supporter of my treatment – I’ve become a better husband and father because I’m well-rested and energetic throughout the day. I also have the support and guidance of my team of physicians. I work with both my primary care doctor and sleep physician to ensure I’m getting the treatment that’s best for me, my family and my lifestyle – and they’ve taught me how treating my sleep apnea has positively impacted other aspects of my health. Since becoming compliant with treatment, my blood pressure has gone down, I’ve found it easier to lose weight and my headaches are a thing of the past. It feels so good to finally wake up feeling like my old self again.

MP: What advice do you have to those suffering with sleep apnea? How did being proactive with testing and treatment help you finally live a happier, healthier life?

AT: If you are diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea – or any sleep illness – ensure you’re seeking treatment from a board-certified sleep medicine physician at an AASM-accredited sleep center. They have the best training and expertise to address your problem and get you back on track toward healthy sleep. Also, stick with the treatment. It’s definitely an adjustment, but it’s worth the effort!

Being proactive helped catch my diagnosis early. I’m confident that beginning my treatment now – as opposed to 10 years from now – will help me avoid or delay chronic conditions that affect men as they age, like heart disease, diabetes and stroke, that are linked to untreated sleep apnea.

MP: Why do you think so many people go without being tested for sleep apnea? What message do you have for those who may have sleep apnea but have avoided testing?

AT: Many people don’t have enough information about sleep apnea to question if they should be tested. Some don’t realize how common it is.  As many as 12 to 18 million Americans have untreated sleep apnea. If you have the symptoms or warning signs of sleep apnea – including loud snoring, waking up with headaches or excessive daytime sleepiness – speak with your physician and get evaluated. It’s a simple overnight test, and that one night could make a huge difference for the rest of your life.

MP: What motivated you to become a sleep advocate? What do you hope to accomplish through this role?

AT: I’m promoting public awareness of sleep apnea and partnering with the AASM because I feel so much gratitude toward my sleep team for the drastic improvement my treatment has made in every part of my life. I share my story because I hope everyone who suffers from a sleep illness can achieve the same – better rest and a longer, healthier life. Anyone who is struggling to sleep well at night or stay awake during the day should get help right away.