CHICAGO - Reggie White probably died of a mysterious inflammatory disease of unknown origin that can strike any organ in the body, exist without detection and disappear without treatment in many cases, according to a preliminary autopsy report.
Sarcoidosis in White's lungs and heart was the likely trigger that "resulted in a fatal cardiac arrhythmia," Dr. Mike Sullivan, medical examiner of Mecklenburg County, N.C., said yesterday. "Sleep apnea may have been a contributing factor."
Sullivan's is the jurisdiction where White died at 7:51 a.m. Sunday after being taken from his home in Cornelius, N.C., to Presbyterian Hospital in Huntersville, N.C. He was 43.
Though sarcoidosis is lethal in only 5 percent of cases and is reported in only one of every 2,500 U.S. residents, its insidious nature apparently has been revealed again in White's case.
"Fifty percent of cardiac sarcoidosis cases are only diagnosed after death," said Andrea Wilson, president of the Foundation for Sarcoidosis Research in Chicago.
The lethal possibility of sarcoidosis occurs when it affects the heart's electrical conduction system, "interfering with heart rhythm," said Dr. Terrence Demos, a radiologist at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood.
A family spokesman said White had sarcoidosis for several years and that it affected his sleep but did not say whether he was undergoing any treatment. The American Lung Association's Web site describes the disease as "characterized by the presence of granulomas, small areas of inflamed cells" but "most frequently found in the lungs."
In a study of 302 NFL players published in the New England Journal of Medicine two years ago, researchers found that sleep apnea, a disorder that halts breathing intermittently during sleep, was more widespread among young, presumably fit athletes than was commonly reported among middle-aged or older men. The average age of the players in the study was 25. The highest percentage of apnea was found among the largest, heaviest linemen.
The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.