By Kathleen Doheny
WebMD Health News
Few details have been released about actress Carrie Fisher’s death in Los Angeles at the age of 60. Fisher, the iconic Princess Leia in Star Wars, had suffered a heart attack several days ago while on a flight to Los Angeles, according to media reports.
WebMD asked cardiology experts to address some of the circumstances surrounding Fisher’s death. None of them treated Fisher or have any personal knowledge of her health history.
The cardiologists include: Seth Baum, MD, Boca Raton, Fla.; Leslie Cho, MD, section head for preventive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation and director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Center at Cleveland Clinic; S. Jacob Scheinerman, MD, chair of cardiovascular and thoracic surgery at Northwell Health Lenox Hill Hospital, New York; and Clyde Yancy, MD, professor of medicine and chief of cardiology, Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago.
WebMD: Isn’t 60 young to have a heart attack, especially for a woman?
Baum: For a woman it would be considered premature cardiovascular disease.
Cho: Very young. Men generally have their heart disease in their 50s and 60s, women in their 60s and 70s. I don’t know her risk factors, but [common] risk factors are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, diabetes and family history.
Scheinerman: In general it is, but we take care of many patients in their 50s and 60s who can have heart attacks. It really depends on many things, including genetics and risk factors.
WebMD: Since the heart attack occurred on the flight from London to LAX, could that delay in care have played a role in the outcome?
Baum: It is always best to get quick care when one has a heart attack. We had an expression 30 plus years ago—time is muscle when someone is having a heart attack.
Cho: What affects the outcome is how early you get the artery open. What is critical is to open the artery as soon as possible.
WebMD: Fisher had said she used cocaine years ago. What effect long term might cocaine use have on the heart?
Yancy: Cocaine use is known to cause heart attacks and immediate death is often the end result. This may occur even with the first episode of use. Using cocaine repeatedly may have a longer term effect on blood pressure, blood vessels and the heart; and in some may even lead to heart failure. It should be clear to all that the non-prescription use of cocaine is harmful, may have great consequences and can lead to death.
WebMD: What about the use of the painkiller Percodan, which Fisher has discussed?
Yancy: Opioid use, that is, narcotics, are troublesome in every regard, with a panoply of adverse reactions and side effects that may either precipitate heart disease, exacerbate heart disease that is already present or lead to respiratory failure that may mimic heart disease, even heart attacks.
The overarching message remains the same. There are consequences, known and unknown, associated with the recreational use of these and other prescription drugs.
WebMD: Fisher was open about her struggle with bipolar disease. In general, what role might that play in heart attacks?
Cho: It’s hard to know. Depression has been linked with early heart disease; as has anxiety.
WebMD: Any lesson from this tragedy?
Baum: This is a great cautionary tale. You need to implement preventive strategies early on in life. Women are not immune. You need to go to the doctor, address your lipids, do everything we know is good—exercise and eat healthfully and maintain an optimal weight.