Sleep apnea may have contributed to death

Updated: December 28, 2004, 2:27 PM ET
Associated Press

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- NFL great Reggie White may have died because of a respiratory disease combined with other health problems, a preliminary autopsy report said Monday.

White most likely had a condition that affected the amount of air his lungs could hold, resulting in "fatal cardiac arrhythmia," said Dr. Mike Sullivan, the medical examiner for Mecklenburg County and a forensic pathologist.

Sarcoidosis usually not fatal
Sarcoidosis, the respiratory disease that may have contributed to the death of NFL great Reggie White, usually comes and goes mysteriously, with about 95 percent of patients recovering, experts say.

Sarcoidosis is an inflammatory disease of unknown origin that usually is very mild, said Dr. Norman H. Edelman, a Stony Brook, N.Y., specialist and a scientific consultant to the American Lung Association.

"It's a disease with an exaggerated inflammatory response to some sort of trigger," he said Monday. "It could be an inhaled pollutant or toxin. But we don't really know for sure."

Sarcoidosis is lethal in about 5 percent of cases, and it is uncommon to die of the disease at 43, Edelman said. In about 20 percent of the cases, he said, the disease progresses and the inflammation spreads throughout the lungs, and, sometimes, to the liver, brain or heart. But even then, recovery is the most common outcome.

"The most common thing we see in patients with sarcoidosis are enlarged lymph nodes in the chest and nothing else," Edelman said. "Eventually, in most cases, the disease just goes away and doesn't get worse."

Sarcoidosis is slightly more common among blacks and Scandinavians, Edelman said.

"Typically, the symptoms are breathlessness," the doctor said. "The inflammation in the lungs leads to scarring and it makes the lungs stiff. They must work harder to expand."

-- The Associated Press

The report issued by Sullivan's office also said sleep apnea may have been a factor.

The fearsome Philadelphia and Green Bay defensive end was 43.

The report is a preliminary one; determining a final cause of death could take up to three months, Sullivan's office said.

White died Sunday at Presbyterian Hospital in Huntersville after being taken there from his home in nearby Cornelius. His wife, Sara, called 911.

White had the disease, known as sarcoidosis, for several years, family spokesman Keith Johnson said Sunday. He described it as a respiratory ailment that affected White's sleep.

On its Web site, the American Lung Association describes sarcoidosis as a disease characterized by the presence of small areas of inflamed cells that can attack any organ of the body but is most frequently found in the lungs.

The cause of the disease, which is most common among blacks and white northern Europeans, is not known.

Sleep apnea causes people to stop breathing repeatedly -- in some cases, hundreds of times -- during their sleep.

"A 43-year-old is not supposed to die in his sleep," Johnson said. "It was not only unexpected, but it was also a complete surprise. Reggie wasn't a sick man ... he was vibrant. He had lots and lots of energy, lots of passion."

Johnson is the head of Christian Athletes United for Spiritual Empowerment, a ministry that White helped found. He said White had gone to see the movie "Fat Albert" on Christmas night with family and friends.

White and his wife lived in a gated community on Lake Norman. They had two children, Jeremy, a freshman at Elon College in Elon, and a daughter, Jecolia, a junior high school.

A public viewing will be held 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday at A.L. Jinwright Funeral Service in Charlotte. A private service also will be held, although the details won't be made public, the funeral home said Monday.

A two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and ordained minister who was known as the "Minister of Defense," White played 15 seasons with Philadelphia, Green Bay and Carolina. He retired after the 2000 season as the NFL's career sacks leader with 198. The mark has since been passed by Bruce Smith.

A member of the NFL's 75th anniversary team, White was elected to the Pro Bowl a record 13 straight times 1986-98. He was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1987 and 1998.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press