There’s no doubt that 2016 has been hard on pop culture icons. We’ve lost dozens of recognizable names, many of them still vibrant and working in their careers. The year is not yet finished, and, neither, apparently, is the string of deaths being visited on our pop culture stars.
In just the last week, we’ve lost pop star George Michael and actress Carrie Fisher. Both died of heart failure. Although we don’t know that either star had sleep apnea, it is possible that both of them had the condition, which contributed to their heart failure.
In just the last week, Carrie Fisher and George Michael died of heart failure.
Weight Gain, Drug Use, and Sleep Apnea
Both George Michael and Carrie Fisher had difficulty dealing with their fame. One problem they experienced was drug use. They also both experienced weight gain at different points in their careers.
Drug use can contribute to sleep apnea because, like alcohol use, it causes the supporting tissues of the airway to relax. This causes the airway to collapse, cutting off the supply of air. Obesity can have a similar impact. With extra weight on the neck, it takes more effort to maintain an open airway. The tongue can also get fatter, which makes it more likely to block the airway.
Carrie Fisher was well acquainted with the combined risk of drugs and sleep apnea. She wrote in her memoir Wishful Drinking that she had a friend pass away from sleep apnea and drugs in her bed.
Tooth Loss and Sleep Apnea Risk
Carrie Fisher had an additional risk factor: she wore dentures. She had long ago lost her teeth related to her drug use. Although it’s a good idea for people to remove dentures at night while sleeping to protect themselves against potential risks ranging from pneumonia to accidentally swallowing dentures, it doesn’t help sleep apnea.
Your teeth are part of the support structure for your airway–they’re what holds your jaw in position, right?–and if you don’t have teeth or tooth replacement structures, your airway may be more likely to collapse.
Most People with Heart Failure Have Sleep Apnea
With no real evidence that either of these stars had sleep apnea, why are we linking them with the condition? It’s just statistics.
Most people with heart failure have sleep apnea. Low-end estimates say about 50-70% of people who are treated for heart failure have sleep apnea. Actual testing of patients puts the rates much higher, over 80 or even 90%. The truth is that sleep apnea is a killer, and that heart failure is one of its most common weapons.
As sad as we are to see these icons go, we hope that our friends and family in Omaha take this lesson seriously: if you suspect sleep apnea, get tested. Even if you have no direct evidence, please get tested.