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ROCKVILLE – When NFL great Reggie White died in his sleep suddenly in 2004 due to complications related to sleep apnea, James Brown, host of “The NFL Today” on CBS, remembers the moment as a wake-up call. As good friends, Brown recalls the moment as an eye-opener that would change his life from that point.

For 12 years, Brown had co-hosted the Fox News Sunday pre-game show while living a grueling schedule. In addition to working long hours that deprived him of adequate sleep, Brown found himself unable to retain basic information when he prepared for the show. Additionally, his wife would constantly wake him up during the night because he would repeatedly stop breathing.

Brown wondered if he also could have a sleep disorder, and a visit to the Sleep Center in Rockville confirmed that his condition was a classic case.

Fortunately, with the help of the center’s director, Dr. Asefa Jejaw Mekonnen, Brown was able to get the disorder under control. Through the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine. Brown today says that he is “still enjoying the remarkable difference in his alertness, stamina, and ability to retain information.”

It is estimated that 50 to 75 million U.S. adults have a sleep disorder, and 25 million U.S. adults have obstructive sleep apnea.

A recent study by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston explored sleep apnea in 852 African American men and women living in Jackson, Miss., who participated in the Jackson Sleep Heart Study. They found a high prevalence of sleep apnea among this large sample, and the majority—95%—were undiagnosed and untreated.

“Over 95% of this sample experience nightly stresses associated with periods when breathing stops and oxygen levels fall. Untreated sleep apnea can increase the risk for hypertension-related diseases such as strokes, a condition disproportionally common among African Americans,” said Dr. Dayna A. Johnson, an associate epidemiologist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at the hospital, and lead author of the study.

“These findings reveal that sleep apnea is underdiagnosed and a threat to the safety and health of African Americans,” said Dr. Michael Twery, director of the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research at National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLB).

The consequences of sleep disorders and sleepiness are staggering. Drowsy driving is responsible for 1,550 fatalities annually in the U.S., with about 4.7 million people reporting nodding off or falling asleep while driving.

According to the American Sleep Association, about 100,000 deaths occur each year in U.S. hospitals due to medical errors, and sleep deprivation has been shown to make a significant contribution to the cause.

However, help is available, says Mekonnen, a Stanford trained board-certified specialist in pulmonary disease and sleep medicine, who established the Premier Sleep Center at Rockville Internal Medicine Group, in 2004. Accredited by the Academy of Sleep Medicine, the center has performed more than 10,000 diagnostic and therapeutic studies.

A native of Gondar in Ethiopia, Mekonnen was inspired by his mother, one of the first pediatric nurse practitioners in Ethiopia. In his office, a picture shows the then-Emperor Haile Selassie awarding her a nursing diploma.

Mekonnen trained at Addis Ababa University and completed his post-doctoral residency at the University Of Illinois College Of Medicine, studying Internal medicine. He also studied pulmonary and critical care medicine at Northwestern University with post-doctoral training in clinical and behavioral sleep medicine at the world-famous Stanford university sleep disorders center.

During a trip to San Francisco in 2001, Mekonnen met the late Christian Guilleminault, one of the world-leading authorities on sleep medicine, and studied under him. “I became fascinated by what sleep deprivation does to the body and the brain,” says Mekonnen.

Mekonnen began treating Brown in 2005, and the sports announcer gradually lost more than 50 pounds, which helped the severity of his sleep apnea to reduce significantly. According to Mekonnen, Brown’s is a success story, but he noted that sleep apnea is a public health issue “that affects individuals ranging from children to the elderly.”

“When sleep apnea is untreated, every part of the body suffers, particularly the cardiovascular system and the brain. It can lead to memory loss, possible dementia, strokes, irregular heartbeats, systemic and pulmonary hypertension, fatty liver, and the worsening of kidney function.

For African-Americans, Mekonnen said the potential to develop sleep apnea is particularly high. “Lack of information and lack of access to service are the main reasons,” says Mekonnen, noting that, “We have to increase awareness to the African American community aggressively.”

For people interested in making an appointment with the Sleep Center, they should be prepared to undergo a comprehensive evaluation and physical exam, which includes a look at their airway and any obstructions.

Management of comorbidities that coexist and negatively interact with sleep apnea, like obesity, asthma, chronic obstructive airway disease, cardiac arrhythmia, congestive heart failure, pulmonary hypertension, is co-managed in collaboration with other physicians.

The Premiere Sleep Center in Rockville is equipped to provide comprehensive sleep medicine services ranging from insomnia and daytime sleepiness to disorders of breathing during sleep. A full pulmonary function testing laboratory, the center offers airways inspection via laryngoscopy, and both in laboratory and home sleep monitoring technologies.

To learn more about the Premier Sleep Center in Rockville, visit premiersleep.com or call 301-762-5020, ext. 3088.

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