Sleep Apnea: A Factor in Carrie Fisher’s Death

How Apnea Played a Role in Leia’s Death

Carrie Fisher, known for her role as Princess Leia in the Star Wars franchise, made the news this week when it was released that sleep apnea played a role in her untimely death.

Throughout the years working as a sleep technologist I can attest to the long running Darth Vader jokes from patients when I fitted them with a CPAP mask   (especially if it was a full face mask). I must admit it really does sound much like the Lord Vader’s breathing when you turn the CPAP machine on. These jokes now carry new meaning as the spotlight is now on a sleep disorder that affects an estimated 22 million adults in the Unites States. Shockingly, most people that have sleep apnea don’t even realize it because only 20-25% have been diagnosed.

Opiates and Sleep Apnea

The toxicology report indicates that opiates and illegal narcotics may be involved in Carrie Fisher’s death. When you combine drugs that cause respiratory depression with someone that has untreated sleep apnea you create a life threatening situation. For those unaware of what sleep apnea is, it’s a sleeping disorder where a person’s airway is blocked by collapsed tissue in the throat or an enlarged tongue that falls back that restricts air to the lungs. These incidents can last anywhere from 10 seconds up to a couple of minutes and can occur as often as every minute of sleep. During an apnea event there is a drop in blood oxygen level and increased workload on the heart.

A Perfect Storm

Phrenic nerves in our central nervous system send impulses from our brains to the diaphragm to stimulate respiratory drive (breathing in and out). When an opiate is introduced to someone with untreated sleep apnea the airway is blocked and our brains cannot get the message to our body to breathe. In 2008 I was a part of a research project that concentrated on a novel treatment for sleep apnea associated with use of opiates. The findings of this study revealed that opiate users exhibited central sleep apnea events that required a special device to stimulate a breath. Basically, someone with obstructive sleep apnea (closed airway) also had central sleep apnea components (lack of respiratory effort to breathe).

A Deadly Epidemic

The heroin epidemic and prescription drug abuse today causes great concern. When you add the rising obesity rate in the U.S. today , the most common cause of obstructive sleep apnea, with the increasing heroin and opiate abuse the result will be more sleep related deaths.

Throughout the years the rising amount of celebrities that have overdosed and died in their sleep has always prompted me to think that sleep apnea may have played a role in their death. As a sleep technologist I recognizes indicators such as neck size greater than 17″ as a sign someone may have this sleep disorder. Notable celebrities such as Chris Farley and Philip Seymour Hoffman have always had me wondering if they had sleep apnea and how severe they may have been. Sadly, the last thing on someone’s mind when they take are on opiates is to put their CPAP mask on when they go to sleep. The question still remains if Carrie Fisher was on or using CPAP as indicated for sleep apnea treatment.

The Silent Killer

Many people may not even be aware they suffer from sleep apnea until a spouse may tell them or their physician orders a sleep test because of indicated symptoms. There are two pathways a person with suspected sleep apnea can go to find out if they have this sleep disorder. A polysomnogram is an in-lab overnight sleep study where physiological parameters are monitored such as airflow, oxygen levels, brain wave activity and respiratory effort. For people that likely suffer from obstructive sleep apnea (most common) an in home sleep apnea test kit can be performed.

Apnea Risk Factors
Sleep Apnea Risks

In home sleep apnea test kits allow you sleep in your own bed and monitor the major physiological parameters that may determine if you suffer from sleep apnea or sleep disordered breathing. We offer the testing kit service for the low price of $249.00 (compare that to the thousands a sleep lab may charge you or your insurance). Our test kits are scored by a registered polysomnographic technologist and reviewed by a board certified sleep physician.

Symptoms That You May Have Sleep Apnea

  • Snoring or witnessed gasping for air while sleeping
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Falling asleep in situations where you should be awake (i.e. driving, watching TV, etc)
  • Waking to extreme morning dry mouth or sore throat
  • Frequent night time urination
  • Morning headaches
  • Moodiness , irritability and short term memory loss
  • Hypertension (High Blood Pressure)
  • Neck size greater than 17 inches
  • Diabetes

  How is Sleep Apnea Treated?

The gold standard for sleep apnea treatment is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine. The CPAP machine takes room air and filters it, adds humidity and pressurizes it to keep the airway open while you sleep. The machine does not breathe for you, it simply keeps your airway open for you to breathe on your own thus it should not be confused with an oxygen concentrator or ventilator. The pressurized air is sent to a hose that is attached to a mask that you wear while you sleep.

“Sleep apnea treatment is a lifelong commitment though the positive outcomes of compliance far outweigh the deadly side effects of untreated sleep apnea”

The use of CPAP is a lifelong commitment however the positive and noticeable impacts this has on a person’s life is well worth it. For many people CPAP compliance can promote a longer and healthier life as well as improvement of co-morbid conditions such as hypertension. Studies have shown that a person that regularly uses their CPAP can have a reduction in healthcare costs and reduced risks of major health issues.

There are  surgical options or oral appliances that can be used for people and it has been shown that sufferers with a mild to moderate condition may benefit from these pathways.

For more information you can contact our clinical specialist at 1-800-274-1366 or visit us at


About the Author


Jason Smith is recognized by the board of polysomnographic technologists (BRPT) as a registered polysomnographic technologist (RPSGT) since 2003. He is also Director of Clinical Operations for 6 multi-state sleep diagnostic facilities including the nation’s largest 20 bed sleep disorder testing center. Jason has also been a Co-Author with two research publications featured in Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.