Death and Sleep Apnea: Carrie Fisher

News of actress Carrie Fisher’s death in December 2016 stunned the world, and as we learned several months later that the likely cause of death was sleep apnea and other undetermined factors, attention was turned to this serious sleep disorder. People who had not heard of the condition wondered exactly what it is, and those who suffer from sleep apnea grew concerned about their own condition. It is important to note that sleep apnea is rarely a direct cause of death, but it can lead to a range of potentially serious health problems such as heart attack and stroke that can be fatal. It can also increase the risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and heart failure. In addition to sleep apnea, Fisher’s coroner’s report also cited atherosclerotic heart disease and “drug use”, which was unspecified. The report concluded that “The manner of death has been ruled undetermined.”

What Is Sleep Apnea?

Sleep apnea is a common, yet serious sleep disorder that affects approximately 22 million Americans. It is a condition that causes breathing to become shallow or to stop completely for a few seconds to a minute. In severe cases, breathing can stop 30 times or more per hour. There are three types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), which is caused by a blocked airway due to the muscles in the back of the throat relaxing during sleep; central sleep apnea, characterized by the brain failing to signal the muscles to breathe; and complex sleep apnea, a combination of obstructive and central sleep apnea. Of all three types, OSA is the most common.

According to a study conducted by the researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people with severe, untreated sleep apnea “have more than three times the risk of death from any cause compared to the general population.” While sleep apnea sounds scary and is a serious condition, it can and has been successfully treated for many years. The most common way to treat moderate to severe obstructive sleep apnea is with various positive airway pressure machines that help open up a blocked airway; these include a CPAP machine (continuous positive airway pressure), BiPAP machine (bi-level positive airway pressure) and VPAP (variable positive airway pressure).

Know the Symptoms

Many people who suffer from sleep apnea are not aware they have the condition, because it occurs when they are sleeping. One of the telltale signs of sleep apnea is persistent, loud snoring and a snorting sound. Typically, a sleeping partner is the one who notices symptoms of sleep apnea. Other symptoms include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness and difficulty concentrating
  • Waking up gasping or choking
  • Morning headaches
  • Observed episodes of stopped breathing by a partner
  • Dry mouth or sore throat in the morning
  • Mood swings, irritability and depression

If you suffer from any of the symptoms above, talk to your doctor. If he or she suspects you have sleep apnea, you will be referred to a sleep specialist who will determine the type, severity and your best treatment options. Sleep science is evolving in such a way that modern equipment is not only effective, but more comfortable than ever. With the proper treatment, you can enjoy night after night of healthy, restorative sleep.

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