Can You Die From Sleep Apnea? (The Tragic Case of Princess Leia)

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Can you die from sleep apnea?

The answer I’m afraid is yes.

We need look no further than Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher, who immortalized the character Princess (General) Leia.

Okay, there were other contributing factors to her death, but obstructive sleep apnea certainly played it’s part.

I’m sure those of you who suffer from this terrible affliction will often worry about your own mortality – I mean, struggling to breath or choking while you sleep is enough to give you a serious cause for concern.

I want to delve a little deeper into the risks of death from sleep apnea.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at Carrie Fisher’s Tragic Death

Fisher completed the final leg of her European book tour and she made her final TV appearance on an episode of the UK comedy quiz show, 8 out of 10 cats. The show was broadcast on 21st December 2016.

Fisher then took a commercial flight from London to Los Angeles on 23rd December 2016.

Her assistant recalls that Fisher was asleep for the majority of the flight, but suffered certain respiratory events, or bouts of sleep apnea. However, this was considered completely normal for Ms. Fisher.

Ms. Fisher’s assistant had trouble waking her towards the end of the flight, and when she finally did come around she started to vomit before then slumping over and becoming unresponsive.

A passenger seated near Ms. Fisher states that she had stopped breathing and another passenger performed CPR on her.

Emergency services in Los Angeles had already been informed by the flight crew, about 15 minutes before landing, that they had a passenger who was unresponsive.

Upon landing Fisher was immediately taken by ambulance to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and placed on a ventilator.

After 4 days in intensive care, Fisher died on 27th December 2016.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued a death certificate on 9th January 2017, stating that the cause of death was “cardiac arrest/deferred”. This meant that further tests were required.

Fisher’s struggles with cocaine, prescription drugs, mental illness and bipolar disorder have been well documented over the years, and many people assumed that her death was tied to these elements.

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office released their final and full report on 19th June 2017. The report mentioned traces of cocaine, heroin, MDMA, and other opiates in her system, but was unable to determine whether these substances contributed to her death.

The major contributing factors were sleep apnea and a buildup of fatty tissue in the arteries (heart disease).

Interestingly, a report published in Forbes magazine in June 2017 has stated that it was unclear whether Fisher knew she had sleep apnea, and therefore may not have been actively treating the condition.

The Risk of Death From Sleep Apnea

Some facts from the American Sleep Apnea Association

  • It is estimated that 38,000 people die from heart disease in the United States every year with sleep apnea noted as a complicating factor.
  • Up to 20% of adults will have sleep apnea to some degree.
  • Sleep apnea is more common in men than women, and children can also suffer with sleep apnea.
  • The condition can worsen or even lead to certain diseases, such as high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, COPD, sudden cardiac death.

I think a major worry for some people is that they may die in their sleep from sleep apnea. However, many would argue that this is unlikely to happen.

Your body will typically sense that it’s not receiving enough oxygen and will therefore force you awake, thus allowing the airways to open and “normal” breathing to resume once more.

Nevertheless, clinical research shows that mortality is higher in people who have sleep apnea.

The main reason for this is due to the disruption of circadian rhythms, imbalances in both mind and body chemistry, the interruption to respiratory and cardiac function, elevated heart rate and blood pressure.

If these conditions and sleep apnea are left untreated it will lead to a significantly higher chance of death.

Can You Die From Sleep Apnea? Yes, If It’s Left Untreated!

John Bouzis, a dentist who specifically works with sleep apnea patients and specialists, had some interesting comments when interviewed by the Washington Post following Ms. Fisher’s death.

He stated that it isn’t specifically sleep apnea that people die from, but from stroke, cardiovascular disease, or pulmonary problems. Sleep apnea is basically a “time bomb”.

If sleep apnea is left untreated:

  • You are more likely to have a heart attack.
  • There is 2-3 times higher risk of having a stroke.
  • Up to 3 times a higher risk of premature death.
  • And if you’ve had sleep apnea for up to 5 years there is a 30% higher risk of having a heart attack or dying.
  • Over 40% of deaths in people with sleep apnea was due to heart disease.
  • Cardiac related deaths are 5 times higher among people with sleep apnea that was left untreated.

Carrie Fisher Wasn’t the Only Celebrity with Sleep Apnea

There have been a number of other celebrities whose deaths have been attributed to cardiac factors due to sleep apnea. They include: 

  • James Gandolfini, most famous for various movie appearances and The Sopranos.
  • 1980s comedy legend, John Candy.
  • Two-time NFL defensive player of the year, Reggie White.
  • Jerry Garcia, lead Vocalist and guitarist with the band the Grateful Dead.
  • William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States.
  • American actor, singer and famous drag queen Divine (Harris Glenn Milstead).

There are also numerous living celebrities who are known to have sleep apnea, such as William Shatner, Randy Jackson, Regis Philbin, Shaquille O’Neal, Adam Savage, Roseanne Barr, Rick Perry, Rosie O’Donnell, Brett Favre, Quincy Jones.

The Other Factors That Lead to Carrie Fisher’s Death

So, we know that sleep apnea was a contributing factor in Carrie Fisher’s death, but let’s take a look at the other factors, and how they directly correlate with sleep apnea.

Sleep Apnea and Heart Disease

I have mentioned that 38,000 people die every year from heart disease that was complicated by sleep apnea.

Heart disease is the biggest killer of any illness or condition, and it is estimated that up to 6% of people who die from heart disease also have sleep apnea.

Heart disease is different in women than it is for men. Women typically suffer from two forms of heart disease, namely atherosclerosis and non obstructive coronary artery disease.

In Fisher’s case, it was the hardening of the arteries associated with atherosclerosis that led to her having a heart attack.

Sleep apnea will deprive the body of oxygen and place further stress on the function of the heart, which can only make heart disease even worse.

Sleep Apnea and Drug Use

Fisher was found to have a wide variety of drugs in her bloodstream at the time of her death. These included, cocaine, ecstasy, opiates, methadone, etc.

Medical experts agree that long-term use of illegal drugs will damage the organs of the body in such a way that it will inevitably lead to sleep apnea.

Cocaine is typically snorted and will damage the nasal airways over time, as well as the upper airways. This can lead to the surrounding tissues collapsing during sleep and causing a blockage, i.e. sleep apnea.

Opioids will affect the respiratory system, especially during sleep. This is mainly due to the signals the brain sends to the respiratory system in order to function. When these signals aren’t correctly transmitted this can lead to reduced tone in the muscles required to breath.

The correlation between substance abuse and sleep disorders is well documented. Various health studies have shown that people with sleep disorders that are left untreated often turn to alcohol or drugs, depending on whether they wish to sleep at night or be awake during the day.

RELATED POST ====> How Does Alcohol Affect Sleep?

Sleep Apnea and Mental Illness

Carrie Fisher was an advocate for mental health issues and suffered with bipolar disorder herself.

We are now aware that sleep apnea causes sleep deprivation and chronic fatigue, and this in turn can lead to various mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

If you suffer from certain mood disorders due to daytime fatigue or insomnia, as alluded to above, this can lead to trying to self medicate with alcohol or illicit drugs.

This type of substance abuse will worsen any preexisting mental health conditions.

On a Final Note

So I asked – Can you die from sleep apnea?

In conclusion, it’s not so much actually dying “in your sleep” from sleep apnea, which I believe is what most people are worried about, but the associated mental and physical health risks.

Carrie Fisher is just one case of someone who tragically died with sleep apnea being a major contributing factor.

We have seen that there is medical evidence which shows thousands of people die from heart disease every year, with sleep apnea a contributing factor.

There are also various other health issues that are linked to sleep apnea.

The main issue is if sleep apnea is left untreated, which unfortunately in many cases it is.

If you or a loved believe that you may have sleep apnea then don’t hesitate in speaking to your doctor.

Once diagnosed there are numerous ways to treat this potentially life-threatening sleep disorder.

8 thoughts on “Can You Die From Sleep Apnea? (The Tragic Case of Princess Leia)”

  1. This is an interesting article. I was shocked to hear of Carrie Fisher’s death. I’m a big Star Wars fan. Sleep apnea is certainly something to take seriously. Thanks for this very informative piece.

    • Hi Regina,

      Great to hear from you.

      Yes, I’m a big Star Wars fan myself and it was very sad to hear of Carrie’s passing.

      It was actually her death that opened my eyes to sleep apnea and it prompted me to really research the condition and find out as much as I could.


  2. I’m curious, was the fact that it’s Star Wars day what inspired you to write about Carrie Fisher?

    That’s such a scary possibility, to think you could die in your sleep or someone in the bed next to you could be dead and you wouldn’t even know it! It’s also surprising how many deaths are related to sleep apnea. I get the impression from your post that with proper care and treatment, it can be prevented though!

    • Hi Sharon,

      Great to hear from you as always.

      Yes, well spotted – May the 4th Be With You!

      To be completely honest, it isn’t so much a case of dying in your sleep (this is extremely rare), it’s more to do fatal diseases that sleep apnea, when left untreated, can lead to.

      But I agree it is very scary.


  3. Hello Partha,

    Thanks for writing this article. I have been told of the risks of sleep apnea before, but it was very helpful for me to see everything laid out in black and white.

    How much of a factor is weight gain? I have a double chin, and my wife is always teasing me about my snoring. Is there a test I can take to see if I have sleep apnea?



    • Hi Michael,

      Great to hear from you.

      Well, firstly I have to say you have my heartfelt apologies for the ribbing you receive from your wife.

      As I’ve alluded to in various articles on this site, being overweight or obese plays a huge part in sleep apnea. In fact, I would even go as far to say it is probably the biggest risk factor.

      As for a test, it’s almost as though you read my mind – my very next article is about the STOP BANG Score, and will explain what to do next once you’ve answered the questions.


  4. wow, who knew sleep apnea could be so dangerous. Thank you for your very informative post. I actually didn’t know that sleep apnea was a cause of Carrie Fishers death. Thanks for a great article!

    • Hi Russ,

      Thanks for your comments.

      Yes, left untreated, sleep apnea can be far more serious than simply not sleeping well.

      As you can see, it can lead to many life-threatening conditions and was a major factor in Carrie Fisher’s untimely demise.



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