Carrie Fisher’s untimely death was caused in part by sleep apnea, a common disorder that affects roughly 22 million Americans — with the vast majority of cases going undiagnosed.
On Friday, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office revealed the late actress’s December death was caused by the sleep condition, in addition to other undetermined factors.
The coroner also mentioned Fisher’s atherosclerotic heart disease and “drug use,” but no specifics were given. According to the Associated Press, the report stated Fisher had taken multiple drugs prior to her death. “The manner of death has been ruled undetermined,” the report concluded.
Sleep apnea is a condition that causes breathing disruptions during sleep that can last anywhere from seconds to minutes, according to the U.S. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Apnea is a Greek word meaning “want of breath.”
According to American Sleep Apnea Association, the vast majority of cases go undiagnosed, as sufferers do not experience symptoms when they are awake. Sleep apnea is also undetectable on blood tests. Most often, it is the sufferer’s sleeping partner who first detects symptoms, such as snoring or choking noises that occurs after the patient resumes breathing.
There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea, with the former being far more common. Obstructive sleep apnea, most common in people who are overweight, occurs when the breathing airways collapse or become blocked. This can result in loud snoring. Central sleep apnea, on the other hand, can affect anyone and occurs when the brain fails to send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing.
Sleep apnea is rarely a direct cause of death, but it can lead to a wide range of other potentially fatal health problems. The condition is known to increase the chances of high blood pressure, stroke, obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. Sleep apnea is normally treated by lifestyle adjustments, like eating healthier, losing weight, exercise and certain breathing devices.
If left untreated, sleep apnea can cause a higher rate of mortality for its sufferers. According to a 2008 study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, people with severe, untreated sleep apnea die at a rate more than three times higher than those without the disorder.
Preliminary research has shown that substance abuse and sleeping disorders can go hand in hand. According to a 2009 study published online at the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, patients with sleep disorders often resort to drugs or alcohol to promote sleep or to stay awake during the day. Also, substance abuse can cause sleep disturbances, which result in relapse.
Sleep apnea, combined with other factors, caused Fisher to suffer a heart attack at the end of last year. She was flying from London to Los Angeles on Friday, Dec. 23, when she went into cardiac arrest. Paramedics removed her from the flight and rushed her to a nearby hospital, where she was treated for a heart attack. She later died in the hospital, just one day before her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed away.