Women's Health

Carrie Fisher's Death Leads to Increased Concern Over Sleep Apnea

Carrie Fisher's Death Leads to Increased Concern Over Sleep Apnea

Photo: Actress Carrie Fisher. Source: Rolling Stone.

Long-time actress and author Carrie Fisher will probably be best remembered as playing her iconic role of Princess Leia in George Lucas’s cult classic Star Wars. When news of her death reached the internet, fans of the beloved series were shocked and eager to find the cause, especially since her mother, Debbie Reynolds, died just a day after.

While a massive heart attack ended her life, the coroner’s report says there were various causes behind it, including drug usage, atherosclerosis (clogged arteries), and sleep apnea.

The correlation between sleep apnea and other disorders

Sleep apnea brings a wide array of negative results by itself, including light sleep, waking frequently, feeling tired and grouchy during the day, and interrupting other sleeping people at night. However, sleep apnea is also commonly accompanied by a myriad of other disorders like heart disease, high blood pressure, fatigue, and obesity.

In their article on Carrie Fisher’s death, the American Sleep Apnea Association argues that while a direct death from sleep apnea isn’t probable because the body will respond to a lack of oxygen and wake itself up, more discreet factors can cause diseases and an elevated risk of death if left untreated, “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” (American Sleep Apnea Association). 

Factors to consider about sleep apnea

Sleep apnea causes obstruction to the airways, which results in decreased oxygen levels, poor sleep, and snoring. Oftentimes, however, it is misdiagnosed because no one who sleeps alone can know they are snoring and the other symptoms can be caused by something else. For example, feeling lethargic during the day can be the result of depression, poor diet, or lack of exercise. Decreased oxygen levels could also result in headaches or trouble breathing, which could be attributed to migraines or asthma.

The Alaska Sleep Clinic released a list of diagnoses that women especially may be given instead of sleep apnea. They include fatigue, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, headaches, mood disturbances, lack of energy, and depression.

If a person has been given a diagnosis for another problem, but struggles with the same symptoms as sleep apnea, they should strongly consider going to see a sleep specialist. Having a health professional carefully monitor sleep through the night is the only way to get a firm diagnosis. Knowing the extreme danger in leaving the disease untreated, it is worth the extra time and money to go see a specialist if the patient remains in doubt. 

Why it may not be getting the hype it deserves

As the Alaska Sleep Clinic reports, wrong diagnoses or no diagnosis are some of the reasons sleep apnea may not seem as common as it might be. In actuality however, some research suggest the real statistic for sleep apnea may be one in four Americans between the age 30 and 70.

While women are only half as likely to develop the disorder, an article from the Alaska Sleep Clinic notes that women are left untreated four times as much as men, “Men are twice as likely to have sleep apnea than women. However, men are often diagnosed with sleep apnea almost 8 times more often than women.If women are half as likely to have OSA as men, but are diagnosed and treated for it only an eighth of the time, something must be wrong” (Phillips).

The reasons why women don’t get diagnosed as often as they should range from a primary doctor’s inability to recognize the symptoms, a patient’s story which could lead the physician into thinking she has another problem such as insomnia or depression, and women who don’t look like the typical case.  Angie Randazzo, Behavioral Sleep Medicine Specialist at St. Lukes Sleep Medicine & Research Center, acknowledges the difference between women and men who have sleep apnea and the problem therein, “It is commonly known within the sleep field that women with OSA present differently than men. They often don't have the stereotypical body type and don't always say they are sleepy. Many will say they are fatigued, leading clinicians to think they have insomnia versus OSA."

Women with sleep apnea tend to be obese, but that isn’t always the case. It can also be caused by hormonal changes around menopause and other factors potentially shared with men, such as smoking.

Another contributing factor to Carrie Fisher’s struggle

When Carrie Fisher’s death shocked the world, her brother Todd Fisher responded to the breaking news of the coroner’s reporting of drug usage with no surprise, saying he knew she was on both prescription medicines because of her bi-polar struggles and also addicted to harmful drugs, “We’re not enlightened. There is nothing about this that is enlightening…I would tell you, from my perspective that there’s certainly no news that Carrie did drugs. Without her drugs, maybe she would have left long ago” (Kreps).

Unfortunately sleep apnea, mental illness, and harmful drug usage are all linked, and they follow each other in a vicious cycle. Sleep apnea produces irritating and health-hazardous stumbling blocks to sleep, which can make someone depressed and more likely to use drugs or suicidal. On the other hand, drug usage collapses and depresses the respiratory system, causing long-term damage which may well develop into sleep apnea and mood swings.

Fisher lived her life while opened to honesty and laughter, and free of judgment of others. Throughout her life, she had spoken out about her struggles with mental illness, and her daughter Billie Lourd acknowledged her work shortly after she died, “My mom battled drug addiction and mental illness her entire life. She ultimately died of it. She was purposefully open in all of her work about the social stigmas surrounding these diseases. I know my mom, she’d want her death to encourage people to be open about their struggles” (Kreps).

Fisher’s death rocked the world and grieved her many admirers. Perhaps her open life and untimely death served not only as a testimony to the dangers of drug usage and mental illness, but also proved a point about sleep apnea: If in doubt, check it out. Don’t let it go untreated. 


“Yes, You Can Die from Sleep Apnea. Carrie Fisher Did.” SleepApnea.org, 21 June 2017, www.sleepapnea.org/carrie-fisher-yes-you-can-die-from-sleep-apnea/.

Haelle, Tara. “Sleep Apnea Killed Carrie Fisher. Could It Kill You Too?” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 19 June 2017, www.forbes.com/sites/tarahaelle/2017/06/18/sleep-apnea-killed-carrie-fisher-could-it-kill-you-too/#1593d3ae68f6.

Kreps, Daniel. “Carrie Fisher: Coroner Finds Sleep Apnea Contributed to Actress' Death.” Rolling Stone, Rolling Stone, 17 June 2017, www.rollingstone.com/movies/news/carrie-fisher-sleep-apnea-contributed-to-actress-death-w488445.

Phillips, Kevin. “Alaska Sleep Education Center.” Women with Sleep Apnea: Why Women Are Less Often Diagnosed with OSA, 19 June 2015, www.alaskasleep.com/blog/women-with-sleep-apnea-why-women-are-less-often-diagnosed-with-osa.