Medically speaking, Carrie Fisher carried a lot of baggage.
Overweight, a lifelong smoker and devoted user of illegal drugs in her younger days, she spent much of her life medicated for mental conditions ranging from anxiety attacks to depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But in the end, on the fateful flight that would be her last, it was sleep apnea that killed her, according to the Los Angeles coroner.
Fisher’s death was an extreme case, to be sure, but even relatively mild incidences of irregular and interrupted breathing during sleep impacts the lives and health of millions.
Far worse than merely ruining a good night’s sleep, the condition also has been tied to an astronomical increase in the risk of cancer.
University of Sydney Nursing School researchers conducted a long-term study of sufferers and found they were 250 per cent more likely to contract the disease – and 360 per more likely to die after diagnosis.
Their findings were based on an intense study of 397 test subjects over 20 years, starting in 1990.
Shocking as the Australian figures are, they might still understate the risk. A similar US research effort found a 480 per cent correlation between sleep apnea and increased cancer risk.
Doctors theorise that interrupted breath patterns lead to lower levels of oxygen in the blood, which in turn encourages the growth of tumours. They also note that disrupted breathing during sleep is more common in smokers.
This suggests that smoking, a grave cancer risk in itself, is made even more dangerous by its adverse effects on the body’s most basic need after food and water: a good night’s sleep.
In Carrie Fisher’s case, she simply nodded off, stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest.
One doesn’t need to be a pack-a-day nicotine fiend or to have consumed an entire hippy communes’ supply of LSD and mountains of cocaine, as Fisher confessed in her best-selling autobiographical novel Postcards from the Edge.
Clean-living basketball star Shaquille O’Neal endured the same condition for years until he began using a breath-assistance unit and specially fitted mask that push air into his lungs and open his air passages.
Now, for the first time in his adult life, the towering hoopster boasts of waking up refreshed – something he never thought would happen before seeking the help of specialists at Harvard University’s sleep centre. Prior to treatment he was unable to sustain a deep and restful sleep for more than a few minutes at a time.
“I’ve been getting at least seven, eight, nine hours,” O’Neal said. “I feel good, the weight is good, got a lot of energy.”
“The relationship is good at the house,” he said, adding with a smile, “everything is working.”
His longtime girlfriend, Nikki Alexander, is also happy, and not just because her beau is shooting three-pointers in the boudoir. For the first time in years she is no longer rattled awake by the freight-train nocturnal rumbling of her 300-pound partner.
Star Trek’s William Shatner is a sufferer, along with Rosanne Barr and Rosie O’Donnell. What they have in common is above-average weight, plus nasal and throat tissues that close up and block their airways. In extreme instances, sleep-clinic researchers have observed subjects who stop breathing for more than a minute, sometimes hundreds of times in a single night
In mild cases that blockage only lasts a few seconds before the lungs pull hard enough to overcome the blockage, draw in air and open the nasal and throat passages to the accompaniment of a convulsive soft-tissue shudder.
Doctors call that reaction post-ictal stertorous respiration. Shaq O’Neal’s long-suffering girlfriend, along with millions of other sufferers’ bedmates, know it by its common name: awful bloody snoring.
Sleep apnea can most often be easily remedied with a simple device and mask just like he one that has given Shaq his new lease on life.
- For more information, visit Sleep Health Foundation Australia