According to the American Medical Association, roughly 30 million Americans1 have sleep apnea, and among them, are famous figures in sports, entertainment, and politics. For those who are newly diagnosed with sleep apnea or have been managing it for a while, you may find solace in knowing that familiar faces have also had to navigate this disorder.
While some may just associate this sleep disorder with snoring, the truth is that this condition is serious, and in some cases, could be fatal when left untreated. In this article, we’ll share celebrities who have dealt with sleep apnea, while also focusing on the importance of treatment and other common questions about this condition
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep Apnea2 is a disorder that causes a person to stop breathing during sleep. There are two types:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): With obstructive sleep apnea, there’s a physical obstruction blocking the air due to the muscles around the throat relaxing, which cuts off airflow.
- Central sleep apnea (CSA): Central sleep apnea is a nervous system disorder in which the brain doesn’t send breathing signals to the body.
No matter the type, the results and signs of sleep apnea are still the same: you regularly stop breathing while you’re asleep.
Often, people with sleep apnea aren’t even aware that they have the condition because they may not become fully conscious when they wake up2 . Instead, sleep apnea consists of micro-awakenings that interrupt sleep and adversely affect sleep quality.
Get More Info: Complete Guide to Sleep Apnea
Celebrities Who Suffer from Sleep Apnea
Considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time and now retired, Shaquille O’Neal3 has severe sleep apnea and was diagnosed after participating in a Harvard sleep study. In an interview about his sleep apnea, Shaq said “I know for a fact that I stop breathing 72 times per hour. I love sleeping on my back, and my tongue falls back and blocks my airway. Every now and then I’d wake up panting3.”
Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler has sleep apnea4 . Poehler has lived with this condition for years and finally partook in a sleep study when she was 40 years old4.
As a Hollywood writer and producer, Shonda Rhimes has a busy lifestyle and is pulled in multiple directions, so sleep is really important for her. One step Rhimes took5 to control the symptoms of her sleep apnea was losing a significant amount of weight.
The late Regis Philbin7 was a long-time talk and game show host, who used a CPAP machine for his sleep apnea. Philbin passed away in 2020 from a heart attack7 .
Politician and former Texas governor Rick Perry8 was diagnosed with sleep apnea while running for president in 2012.
Actor and comedian John Candy died of a heart attack in 1994, and those close to him observed that he had all the classic signs and symptoms of OSA9.
Grateful Dead singer Jerry Garcia10 died in 1995 of a heart attack. Doctors theorize that his death was partly attributable to the complications of having sleep apnea10.
Actress Carrie Fisher passed away at age 60. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine11 explains that severe sleep apnea and heart disease factored into Fisher’s death.
President Joe Biden
It was recently revealed that 46th U.S. President Joe Biden12 uses a CPAP machine to manage his sleep apnea. Specifically, President Biden has the more common obstructive sleep apnea12 .
Sleep Apnea Treatments
There are several different ways to treat sleep apnea. Make sure you consult with your doctor before beginning any of these treatments.
- Make lifestyle changes – If you lose weight, decrease your alcohol intake, or quit smoking, you can help manage the symptoms of your sleep apnea2.
- Sleep on your side – Side sleeping13 keeps your airways more open, which can decrease your sleep apnea symptoms.
- Use a CPAP machine – A CPAP machine covers your nose and mouth while you sleep and supplies constant, steady compressed air.
- Use a MAD – A mandibular advancement device14 (MAD) moves your jaw and tongue forward to minimize restrictions in the throat. This device reduces snoring and helps to keep your airway open,
- Surgery – Surgery such as tissue removal or shrinkage, soft palate implants, jaw repositioning, nerve stimulation, or tongue nerve stimulation, is used to treat sleep apnea when other treatments don’t work2.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the dangers of sleep apnea if left untreated?
People often avoid treating sleep apnea because they don’t want the stigma and discomfort of wearing a mask at night. However, depriving your body of oxygen, especially in the long term, puts tremendous strain on all of your symptoms. Here are some dangers of sleep apnea if left untreated2 :
- Higher blood pressure – The stress put on your body when you stop breathing can release stress hormones, constricting and hardening the arteries and raising blood pressure.
- Heart disease – People with OSA or CSA increase their risk of having a heart attack because the disrupted flow of oxygen has a similar effect on one’s blood flow, which can be dangerous for the heart and other organs.
- Type 2 diabetes – There’s a link between Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and sleep apnea. Managing one’s weight might not solve the issues that some with sleep apnea completely, but it couldn’t hurt.
- Weight gain – Not getting adequate sleep causes a hormone imbalance that can lead to increased appetite, irritability, and weight gain.
- Fatal accidents – People with OSA or CSA often report that they’re exhausted. Being deprived of sleep dramatically raises your risk of a car accident or other fatal accident.
Learn More: Sleep Apnea Facts – When to Worry About Your Snoring
Can sleep apnea lead to death?
Yes, sleep apnea could lead to death. While this condition won’t outright kill you since you should wake up when you stop breathing, the wear and tear sleep apnea has on your body over time can inhibit your ability to function properly.
Can alcohol influence sleep apnea?
Yes, alcohol can influence sleep apnea15 . Alcohol relaxes your throat muscles, and the effects are compounded when you lie on your back and are unconscious. What’s more, some people have an episode of OSA after drinking even if they don’t have the condition19.
While some people may think sleep apnea is a difficult topic to address, remember that this condition is more common than you think, and there’s a long list of notable figures in the same circumstances as you.
Being diagnosed with OSA or CSA is not the end of the world. The technology available for the CPAP machines and MAD devices is constantly improving and many treatment plans are also covered by insurance.
If you suspect that you may experience sleep apnea, consult your doctor so that if you do have the condition, they can provide you with appropriate care.
- Berg, Sara. “What doctors wish patients knew about sleep apnea”. American Medical Association. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/public-health/what-doctors-wish-patients-knew-about-sleep-apnea. 2022.
- “Sleep Apnea”. Mayo Clinic. Last modified April 6, 2023. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/sleep-apnea/symptoms-causes/syc-20377631.
- “Shaq puts the Slam-Dunk on Obstructive Sleep Apnea”. Dental Sleep Practice. https://dentalsleeppractice.com/shaq-puts-the-slam-sunk-on-obstructive-sleep-apnea/. 2019.
- Rodriguez, Julia. “Amy Poehler writes: ‘Sleep helps you win at life’”. Advanced Sleep Medicine Services, Inc. Webpage accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.sleepdr.com/the-sleep-blog/amy-poehler-writes-sleep-helps-you-win-at-life/.
- Schoellkopf, Christina. “5 Things That Happened to Shonda Rhimes After She Said ‘Yes’ to Everything for a Year”. The Hollywood Reporter. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/tv/tv-news/5-things-happened-shonda-rhimes-838615/. 2015.
- “The Story of William Shatner – Another Celebrity Saved by CPAP”. Sistemma for Sleep Apnea. https://sistemmacpap.com/blog/the-story-of-william-shatner-another-celebrity-saved-by-cpap. 2020.
- “Regis Philbin”. East Oregonian. Last modified April 26, 2023. https://www.eastoregonian.com/community/entertainment/regis-philbin/image_b3e68070-62ef-5550-830c-beb155d934a0.html#:~:text=Regis%20Philbin%20(1931%2D2020),treat%20his%20sleep%20apnea%20diagnosis.
- Root, Jay. “Perry Downplays Sleep Apnea in Failed Run”. The Texas Tribune. https://www.texastribune.org/2012/09/27/perry-downplays-sleep-apnea-office-confirmed/. 2012.
- “When Breathing Stops…”. Dental Sleep Medicine Colorado. Webpage accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.dsm-colorado.com/When-Breathing-Stops#:~:text=John%20Candy%20died%20from%20a,most%20of%20his%20adult%20life.
- “Untreated Sleep Apnea Is A Silent Killer”. Sunrise Dental. https://dinahvice-sunrisedental.com/untreated-sleep-apnea-silent-killer/. 2017.
- “Death of Carrie Fisher is a warning about sleep apnea”. American Academy of Sleep Medicine Sleep Education. https://sleepeducation.org/death-carrie-fisher-warning-sleep-apnea/. 2017.
- O’Rourke, John. “President Biden Is Being Treated for Sleep Apnea. How Common and How Dangerous Is the Condition?”. Boston University. https://www.bu.edu/articles/2023/is-sleep-apnea-dangerous/#:~:text=Last%20week%2C%20the%20White%20House,an%20estimated%2030%20million%20Americans. 2023.
- “Choosing the Best Sleep Position”. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Webpage accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/choosing-the-best-sleep-position.
- “Oral Appliance Therapy for Obstructive Sleep Apnea”. Cleveland Clinic. Last modified March 30, 2020. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/21129-oral-appliance-therapy-for-sleep-apnea.
- “Can Alcohol Consumption Affect Your Sleep Apnea?”. Nelson Dental Sleep Medicine. https://www.sleepbetterflorida.com/blog/2022/02/15/can-alcohol-consumption-affect-your-sleep-apnea/#:~:text=Ongoing%20studies%20have%20revealed%20that,can%20make%20your%20OSA%20worse. 2022.
- “How does alcohol affect your sleep?”. Piedmont Healthcare. Webpage accessed August 1, 2023. https://www.piedmont.org/living-better/how-does-alcohol-affect-your-sleep#:~:text=Problems%20associated%20with%20drinking%20before,Eye%20Movement%20(REM)%20sleep.
Jill Zwarensteyn is the Editor for Sleep Advisor and a Certified Sleep Science Coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.