- Famous People with Narcolepsy – Past & Present
- Famous People with Narcolepsy from History and Politics
- Celebrities with Narcolepsy – Famous Narcoleptics from the Arts and Entertainment
- Famous People with Narcolepsy from the World of Sport
- Yes, you can die from sleep apnea. Carrie Fisher did.
- What caused Carrie Fisher’s death?
- Is it possible to die from sleep apnea?
- What we can learn from Carrie Fisher’s death
Famous People with Narcolepsy – Past & Present
Despite this chronic sleep disorder, famous people with narcolepsy have battled to gain their success. Here are some inspirational celebrities with narcolepsy.
Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness accompanied by a series of auxiliary symptoms, typically beginning in adolescence or young adulthood. These auxiliary symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), sudden sleep attacks, sleep paralysis, cataplexy (a sudden loss of muscle tone) and hallucinations shortly before and after periods of sleep.
The life of a narcoleptic is one full of added complications. Simple tasks can become hampered or even life threatening when afflicted by this chronic sleep disorder. Famous people with narcolepsy have managed to battle against this disorder, making their successes all the more praiseworthy and inspirational to other sufferers. Here are some of the famous narcoleptics, past and present, who have achieved celebrity status in politics, sport and the arts.
Famous People with Narcolepsy from History and Politics
Historical figures have at times been retrospectively diagnosed with narcolepsy. Winston Churchill has often been linked with narcolepsy but this is most likely a result of his abnormal sleep patterns due to his high pressure role, particularly during World War II. Thomas Edison, inventor best remembered for the light bulb, is another figure at times mentioned alongside narcolepsy, but this is largely unfounded.
Harriet Tubman, a humanitarian and heroine of the anti-slavery movement, suffered a traumatic head wound accidently inflicted by one of her masters. She was to suffer seizures, periods of unconsciousness and “visions” after the injury. These have since been attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy or perhaps narcolepsy.
From the world of politics today, the best reported narcoleptic is former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold M. Ickes. Once an integral part of the Clinton administration, Ickes is reported to have used drugs to successfully combat his narcolepsy, despite falling asleep in some meetings. His rise in political spheres is impressive given his condition.
Celebrities with Narcolepsy – Famous Narcoleptics from the Arts and Entertainment
Actress and sex symbol Natassja Kinski is today one of the most famous people with narcolepsy. She spoke of her narcolepsy in an interview with David Jenkins for the Telegraph in 2001, stating that her overall fatigue at the time was “exacerbated by mild narcolepsy”. Kinski appeared in over 60 movies during her film career.
Best known to British audiences, actor Arthur Lowe suffered from narcolepsy. He is best known for his role as Captain Mainwaring in the sitcom Dad’s Army. Across the pond, television audiences in the US will be more familiar with late night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. The comedian, producer and talk show host has risen in the world of entertainment despite suffering from this chronic sleep disorder.
Not many famous people with narcolepsy are known of in literary circles. However, science fiction editor and essayist Teresa Nielsen Hayden is a known narcoleptic. With help from medicines to keep the condition at bay, Hayden has been nominated for five Hugo Awards during her career.
Famous People with Narcolepsy from the World of Sport
Controversy has surrounded the career of narcoleptic professional cyclist Franck Bouyer. Bouyer, who raced for road cycle team Bouygues, used the drug Modafinil to control his narcolepsy allowing him to race. However, in 2004, the UCI (cycling’s governing body) ruled that the drug was a banned substance and Bouyer could not be given special license to use it. Bouyer was unable to race until 2009 when a new narcolepsy drug, Xyrem, was passed by the UCI as legal.
Aaron Flahavan was a professional soccer goalkeeper who played 105 first-team games for Portsmouth FC. Flahavan tragically died in a car crash in 2001. Flahavan was behind the wheel at the time and attention was immediately drawn to his narcolepsy. Following the incident, a web report from UK national newspaper The Independent stated that “Mr Flahavan had a history of blackouts on the pitch and police were trying to establish if a health problem was behind the crash”. However, his blood alcohol level was later found to have been well over the legal limit.
Golf pro Nicole Jeray is another celebrity narcoleptic. A veteran of the LPGA, Jeray suffers from acute narcolepsy but has never given up following her dream. In a Golf Digest article, Jaime Diaz wrote that “During a competitive round, she’ll often be thrust into brief, instant sleep as often as 50 times”.
Nicole Jeray, like the other famous people with narcolepsy mentioned above, has managed to achieve great success in her chosen field despite suffering from narcolepsy. She, like these other celebrities with narcolepsy, serves as an inspiring role model for any person afflicted by narcolepsy.
Yes, you can die from sleep apnea. Carrie Fisher did.
News of the official cause of death of iconic Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher (Princess/General Leia) has swept the Internet, leaving open many unanswered questions. The headlines suggesting Fisher’s death at age 60 was caused by obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are giving many people reason to pause.
Can you actually die from sleep apnea?
It’s unclear to the American Sleep Apnea Association (ASAA) whether Fisher had been diagnosed with and/or was actively treating her sleep apnea. We are attempting to learn more so that we may help educate others about diagnosis of and treatments for this very common medical condition.
While the ASAA is focused on public awareness, education, and advocacy for sleep apnea, we have taken on a new initiative—to help find a cure for sleep apnea—so that the deaths of Carrie Fisher and others can be avoided in the future. However, this work does not happen without support… Please donate now to the ASAA and join us in finding a cure for sleep apnea!
What caused Carrie Fisher’s death?
Carrie Fisher died four days after suffering a heart attack during a flight from London to Los Angeles six months ago.
Her assistant shared in a recent interview that Fisher slept most of the flight and had suffered some respiratory events (apneas) during this time, which was considered normal for her. (It’s still unclear whether Fisher knew she had sleep apnea, according to this report from Forbes, which suggests if she did, she was potentially unaware of it and, therefore, not actively treating it.)
At the end of the flight, Fisher could not be awakened easily. When she did arouse, she began to vomit before slumping over and becoming unresponsive. These are symptoms consistent with heart attack in women.
Since then, family members, friends, and fans have wanted to know the specific cause of death. Fisher suffered from mental health problems and drug addiction throughout her life. Many assumed her death would be tied to drug use.
And to some extent, it has been. The Los Angeles County coroner’s office released its report last Friday, which revealed a number of factors which contributed to the popular actress’s death. While drug use was mentioned in the report, the announcement that sleep apnea and heart disease were major contributing factors has left many with new questions.
Monday morning, a more detailed analysis of Fisher’s death revealed the presence of multiple substances in her system at the time of death: cocaine, opiates, methadone, alcohol, and ecstasy. Ultimately, however, the cause of death was listed as “sleep apnea with other conditions: atherosclerotic heart disease, drug use.”
Is it possible to die from sleep apnea?
Some would argue that you might not actually die in your sleep from apnea. When the body senses it’s not getting enough oxygen during sleep, it forces an awakening. At this time, the breathing airways open and breathing resumes. Because of this mechanism, you stand no chance of suffocating in your sleep. (Learn about sleep apnea basics here.)
But that’s not the point. In fact, it’s like saying people don’t die from AIDS. No, they die from the inevitable complications that come from HIV. It’s true for people with diabetes, as well. No, diabetes does not kill a person outright; it’s a long process that results in poor quality of life, disability, pain, dysfunction, and a shortened lifespan.
Semantics don’t change the facts: mortality risks have been shown in clinical research to be higher in those who have sleep apnea. Sleep apnea disrupts circadian rhythms, imbalances body and brain chemistry, interrupts cardiac and respiratory function, elevates blood pressure, and speeds up the heart’s rate. When allowed to continue, untreated, it absolutely will lead to higher mortality for those who don’t treat it.
When you don’t treat sleep apnea
People with untreated sleep apnea (either because they don’t know they have it or they choose not to treat it):
- are more likely to have a heart attack (Sleep Health Heart Study results, 2001, American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine)
- have a 2 to 3 times higher risk for having a stroke (Sleep Health Heart Study results, 2010, American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine)
- face more than 3 times the risk of premature death (18 year follow-up of the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort, 2008, Sleep)
In addition, people who’ve had sleep apnea for up to 5 years have a 30 percent increase in their risk for having a heart attack or dying, according to research conducted at Yale University.
The more severe one’s sleep apnea, the higher the risk for either an attack or death. In the Wisconsin Sleep Cohort follow-up published in Sleep in 2008, 42 percent of the deaths in people with severe sleep apnea were due to heart disease. Severe, in clinical terms, is defined as having an apnea-hypopnea index (AHI) score of 20 or more respiratory events per hour.
Also, the risk of cardiac-related death was more than 5 times higher among those with untreated severe sleep apnea when compared with those who did not have sleep apnea.
Research findings published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2005 also suggest that people with sleep apnea are more likely to die in their sleep due to sudden cardiac events, whereas most others who die of heart attacks (but who do not have sleep apnea) suffer these events during the day. Low blood-oxygen levels (and high carbon dioxide levels in the bloodstream) lead to surges in blood pressure, oxidative stress to the walls of the heart, and disruptions to the heart’s electrical rhythms.
Other celebrity deaths where sleep apnea was a factor
Fisher isn’t the only celebrity to have died due to health problems related to sleep apnea. Look at this Who’s Who list of sleep apnea sufferers who died of sudden cardiac death linked to this sleep breathing disorder:
- James Gandolfini (The Sopranos)
- Comedic actor John Candy
- Justin Tennison (The Deadliest Catch)
- Entertainer Harris Glenn Milstead (also known as Divine)
- Grateful Dead front man Jerry Garcia
- Singer-musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole
- President William Howard Taft
- NFL player Reggie White
It’s also worth noting that deceased Supreme Court justice Anton Scalia, who passed away just a little more than a year ago, may have died as the result of failing to turn on his CPAP machine to treat his sleep apnea.
Living celebrities battling sleep apnea include:
- Comedians Rosie O’Donnell and Roseanne Barr
- Mythbusters personality Adam Savage
- Texas governor Rick Perry
- Basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal
- NFL quarterbacks Brett Favre and JaMarcus Russell
- TV personality Regis Philbin
- Star Trek icon William Shatner
- Comedian and magician Penn Jillette
- Author Anne Rice
- Daniel Lawrence Whitney (Larry the Cable Guy)
- Musician and American Idol judge Randy Jackson
- Musical legend Quincy Jones
Connecting the dots: heart disease, drug use, mental illness, and sleep apnea
Heart disease—a well-known comorbidity to sleep apnea—was clearly a factor in Fisher’s death. Other factors from the coroner’s report (such as drug use and mental illness) show negative correlations with sleep apnea as well.
Heart disease and sleep apnea
It’s well known in medical circles that an estimated 22 million Americans suffer from sleep apnea, with the vast majority of cases still undiagnosed. Some statistics on sleep apnea mortality estimate that at least 38,000 people die annually from heart disease directly complicated by sleep apnea.
Those people suffering from a heart condition might be well advised to take a look at their sleep health to better understand why, as a quarter of all deaths in the US are cardiac related. Heart disease kills more people than any other illness or condition, and for those who die as the result of it, at least 6 percent have been shown to have had sleep apnea, as well.
Women experience heart disease differently than men, as well. Two forms of cardiac problems more typical for women include nonobstructive coronary artery disease and atherosclerosis.
In Carrie Fisher’s case, atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) was the condition that led to her heart attack.
This form of heart disease occurs when substances including fats and cholesterol attach to artery walls, eventually stiffening and compromising the strength and elasticity of the heart. Coronary arteries lose their ability to transport blood efficiently into and through the heart, which is the body’s most critical muscle. Poor or lack of blood flow is a deadly consequence.
Sleep apnea, because it further stresses heart function and deprives the body of blood oxygen, can only worsen what’s already a bad situation.
Other factors that increase one’s risk for heart attack include smoking, drug use, and excessive drinking because they contribute, over time, to stiffened heart muscle, elevated blood pressure, and the buildup of plaque in the arteries.
Drug use and sleep apnea
Fisher was found to have cocaine, opiates, methadone, alcohol, and ecstasy in her bloodstream in her toxicology report. Using illicit drugs throughout one’s life can damage organs in a way that makes sleep apnea an eventuality.
- Cocaine use (or use of other “snorted” drugs) damages the structures of nasal and upper airways, leading to the collapse of these tissues during sleep
- Opiates are well known for depressing the respiratory system during sleep, when it relies on involuntary brain signaling to function. When the signals from the brain to the diaphragm are depressed by opioid medications, they lose strength, leading to reduced tone in the muscles that should be working together to support breathing.
- Alcohol, by itself, is a major respiratory depressant that should be avoided prior to sleep.
Substance abuse and sleeping disorders seem to go hand in hand as well. A National Institutes of Health study published in 2009 found that people with untreated sleep disorders often turn to drugs or alcohol to achieve sleep or maintain wakefulness during the day.
Unfortunately, substance use and abuse can also cause sleep disturbances, which only frustrates the matter.
Mental illness and sleep apnea
Fisher was a vocal mental health advocate. She’d suffered from bipolar disorder and may have used many of these drugs throughout her life in an effort at self medication.
It’s also important to note that sleep apnea, due to its impact on neurochemical function in the brain, can lead to mood disorders and depression. Though bipolar disorder is a separate medical condition, the addition of mood swings for people with sleep apnea caused by these chemical imbalances and/or related sleep deprivation cannot be discounted as having an additional negative impact on bipolar disorder.
All of this together composes a vicious cycle within the context of (likely) untreated sleep apnea:
- Sleep apnea can cause mood disorders and other mental health issues due to sleep fragmentation, fatigue, and deprivation
- Illicit drug use can also lead to mood, behavior disorders and risky behaviors such as substance abuse (to self medicate for problems with insomnia and daytime fatigue)
- Mental health issues that crop up as the result of untreated sleep apnea may lead to the use of drugs and alcohol, which can then worsen preexisting mental health problems
- For those with untreated sleep apnea, the cycle continues because of ongoing concerns related to insomnia, excessive daytime sleepiness, emotional fatigue, suicidal ideation, and other sleep-related mental health problems
What we can learn from Carrie Fisher’s death
“I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles.” —Carrie Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd
Carrie Fisher’s death may be said to be the result of a perfect storm of factors orbiting the central problem of undiagnosed and/or untreated sleep apnea. The ASAA is grateful to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office for stating the chief cause of death as sleep apnea. This effort gets to the heart of an ongoing need to discuss this dangerous, potentially lethal medical condition publicly.
It’s also likely Carrie Fisher herself—such an advocate for overcoming the stigma of mental health—would also advocate to remove the stigma surrounding snoring. Snoring is a major indicator for undiagnosed sleep apnea that should not go unnoticed by loved ones and family practitioners… and yet it does.
Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, said in the wake of last week’s coroner’s report release, “I know my Mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles.”
If you or a loved one you know snores loudly and frequently, has inexplicable and persistent high blood pressure, experiences gasping or choking at night while asleep, suffers from long-term daytime fatigue, or awakens with a dry mouth, raw throat or headache, please don’t discount the possibility you might have sleep apnea. Simple home testing can help rule the condition in (or out) and there are multiple approaches for treating this chronic medical problem.
Let’s find a way to prevent and cure sleep apnea
The ASAA has taken on a new initiative—to help find a cure for sleep apnea—so that the deaths of Carrie Fisher and others can be avoided in the future. However, this work cannot happen without volunteers and financial support. Please donate now to the ASAA and join us in finding ways to prevent and cure sleep apnea!
Many thanks and gratitude to the following publications and organizations for referencing the ASAA during their course of reporting the Carrie Fisher story:
Global Industry Updates
It’s estimated that around 18 million Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea, and chances are that you personally know someone with some form of the sleep disorder. Of course, those 18 million include people outside our own familial and social circles, and celebrities and sports stars are by no means immune to it (in fact, the condition may have even been the eventual cause of Carrie Fisher’s death). No matter how mighty they may be in the public eye, famous people are, after all, only human. They need sleep like the rest of us!
Below are only some examples of celebrities’ whose somnambulant habits were an indicator of something more severe, and how they wound up approaching their condition.
1- Amy Poehler
Emmy nominated comedian and Saturday Night Alum Amy Poehler was diagnosed with Obstructive sleep apnea after finding herself perpetually exhausted since her pregnancy (incidentally, pregnant women are fairly susceptible to developing OSA). She has reportedly started feeling much better since her diagnosis with the regular use of a CPAP.
2- Shaquille O’Neal
Towering at 7’ 11” and at over 300 lbs, this guy may be the least shocking of the bunch as someone who would contract sleep apnea, demonstrating many of the classic physical attributes of someone who would be susceptible to it. He eventually sought out a diagnosis at the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, where he was diagnosed with a moderate form of OSA. He has since produced a video in association with the Harvard Medical School about his journey from diagnosis to treatment and is now managing the condition with a CPAP.
3- Adam Savage
MythBusters co-host, editor in chief of Tested.com, and internet darling Adam Savage lost 30 pounds and had most of the negative effects of the sleep disorder clear up after seeking treatment. He has since been very publicly open on the positive health impacts that CPAP treatment has brought him.
4- Rosie O’Donnell
According to her sleep test readings, she had some 200 apneic episodes a night! Unsurprisingly, she suffered a heart attack in 2007, which wound up being the catalyst for treatment. As with many people seeking diagnosis, she felt too uncomfortable taking a sleep test at a clinic, and so opted to have one at home. She reportedly took too treatment like a fish to water, with her first night on a CPAP yielding great results! Since then, she has since done good work on bringing awareness to the condition by discussing her diagnosis and treatment on The View.
5- William Shatner
Cultural icon and Shakespearian trained actor, he has since sought treatment for his diagnosis and is still going strong and taking rolls at 86!
6- Regis Philbin
The former host of Who Wants to be a Millionaire also went on The View and spoke about his experience being diagnosed with OSA (only seeking help after a bunch of complaints from his wife about the snoring, naturally) and is currently using a CPAP machine to manage his condition. Before treatment, the Emmy award winning host was plagued by heart conditions that have forced him to go through several bypass surgeries.
7- Herm Schneider
As a successful Chicago White Sox head trainer since 2010 and having over 30 years of experience in the MLB, this man is known for being a staunch defender of the physical health for both himself and his team. This is evidenced by the fact that one of his many claims to fame is having the lowest record of injured players in the league. Since his diagnosis, he has been a wonderful advocate for sleep apnea awareness and CPAP usage.
8- Roseanne Barr
Comedian and TV host Rosanne Bar documented her journey from diagnosis to treatment on her reality show Rosanne’s Nuts, where she filmed her experience at a sleep clinic. After taking a home sleep test, she sought treatment by both using a CPAP and undergoing surgery for her nose.
9- Randy Jackson
This American Idol Judge and musician had a lucky break when he was diagnosed with type-2 diabetes, subsequently revealing that he had sleep apnea. He has since had a gastric bypass surgery, reducing his weight (likely making his condition easier to manage and less severe) and now manages the sleep disorder with regular CPAP treatments.
10- Percy Harvin
The famed wide-receiver for the Florida Gators sought treatment in 2010 after a migraine episode caused him to be carted off the field mid-game. He was soon diagnosed after a hospital stay, with his sleep test showing that his heart stopped beating EIGHT TIMES for up to ten seconds at a time throughout the night. His migraines have reportedly subsided since treatment.
*This is an informational piece of content. No person or persons listed above has endorsed Sleep Group Solutions or our products and we have no intention of implying as such.
Sources utilized for piece:
The news of Carrie Fisher’s cause of death has thrust sleep apnea into the national consciousness again, or at least it should have. While media outlets largely focused on the fact that drugs were found in Fisher’s system, the medical examiner’s report actually noted that sleep apnea and heart disease were major contributing factors in her death.
Carrie Fisher is far from the only celebrity or well-known person to suffer from the condition. While Fisher’s story may be considered more of a cautionary tale, some celebrities are using their position to increase awareness of the prevalence of sleep apnea, and its associated health complications and risks, in the public sphere.
Other famous people who have or had sleep apnea:
Jerry Garcia, the Grateful Dead’s lead guitarist, passed away of a heart attack in 1995. Garcia also suffered from sleep apnea, and his doctors consider the sleep disorder to have played a significant role in his death.
Justice Antonin Scalia
Justice Antonin Scalia passed away while on vacation in Texas in February 2016. It was well-known that he suffered from sleep apnea, in addition to other serious health concerns such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Justice Scalia managed his sleep apnea with the use of a CPAP machine; however, on the night of his death, his CPAP was on the nightstand next to him, unplugged and unused.
While the CPAP can be a great treatment option, many people are unable or unwilling to tolerate the machine, rendering it ineffective. Alternative treatment options, such as oral devices, may be better suited for some people. After all, the best treatment is the one we actually use!
As is so often the case, persistent snoring is a tell-tale symptom of sleep apnea, just ask basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal. After years of dealing with her husband’s snoring, Shaq’s wife finally convinced him to undergo a sleep study, which ultimately revealed that he suffered from sleep apnea.
Since his diagnosis, Shaq has become an advocate working to raise awareness about sleep apnea. In a video created by Harvard Medical School, he discusses his own sleep apnea journey and the importance of getting tested and treated.
Former NFL wide receiver Roy Green’s sleep apnea story, while once grim, has helped spark a greater movement to bring awareness to the prevalence of sleep apnea. Prior to being diagnosed with sleep apnea, Green suffered two heart attacks and two strokes that were largely attributed to the sleep disorder.
Since beginning treatment, Green has seen his health significantly improve. In an effort to help others, he has teamed up with the David Gergen and the Pro Player Health Alliance, an organization of former professional athletes who travel the country spreading awareness about sleep apnea.
Get diagnosed. Get treated.
If you believe you are experiencing symptoms of sleep apnea, contact a certified sleep professional to schedule a consultation and sleep evaluation.