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Cause of Death/Risk

There is a growing effort in the press and from governments to highlight the number of celebrity deaths from drugs, but in this list of the most famous celebrities, only one death is a direct result of a drug overdose. Many people like to cite the stresses and strains of living life in the public eye causing the deaths of celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Prince. Both of these have in common, however, pop culture and dubious doctors. Are illegal drugs the real reason for the number of high-profile celebrity deaths recently?

This is a list of the most infamous deaths of 2016, ordered alphabetically. It is designed to highlight the varying causes of death of the biggest celebrities.

Celebrity Cause of Death/ 2016
Name Date Cause Age
Alan Rickman 14th January Pancreatic Cancer 69
Arnold Palmer 25th September Cardiovascular disease 87
Carrie Fisher 27th December Heart Attack 60
David Bowie 10th January Liver Cancer 69
Debbie Reynolds 28th December Stroke 84
Elie Wiesel 2nd July Old Age 87
Fidel Castro 25th November Crohn’s disease 90
Gene Wilder 29th August Alzheimer’s disease 83
George Michael 25th December Heart Failure 53
Glenn Frey 18th January Pneumonia 67
Harper Lee 19 February Old Age 89
Henry Heimlich 17th December Heart Attack 96
John Glenn 8th December Stroke 95
Jose Fernandez 25th September Crash 24
Kenny Baker 13th August Extended Illness 81
Leonard Cohen 7th November Fall 82
Maurice White 3rd February Parkinson’s disease 74
Muhammad Ali 3rd June Septic Shock 74
Prince 21st April Drug Overdose 57
Robert Vaughn 11th November Leukaemia 83

Heart attacks and strokes appear to have been the biggest threats to their health. However, George Michael and Carrie Fisher were both notorious drug users, and both died of heart failure. Cocaine use is linked to heart attacks, with the drug upping the heart rate and restricting blood flow – therefore increasing blood pressure. A study by the University of Texas revealed ‘Chronic cocaine use increased posterior wall thickness’.

José Fernandez, the 24 year old Miami Marlins pitcher, died in a boat crash, but his autopsy revealed both alcohol and cocaine in his system. Bowie, furthermore, had been a heavy cocaine user, with Mick Jagger remarking on his use, but it had no life-threatening implication as a result. Instead, alcohol had raised the risk for liver cancer.

There is an argument, however, that it is indeed the strain of celebrity life, with stars such as Heath Ledger and Judy Garland overdosing on drugs, allegedly purposefully doing so. “He reached for the pills. He put them in his system. You can’t blame anyone else in that situation.” said Ledger’s father. This would be corroborated with Michael Jackson’s death, with his tour ‘This is It’ no doubt creating excess work.

It makes sense to conclude that any cocaine use should be avoided, and that for strong opioid such as fentanyl that killed Prince, we are better off without. It’s possible, however, that it is a result of confirmation bias, or ‘negative selection bias’. These drug abuse cases provide a far more interesting story for the sensationalist tabloids, and they take advantage of widespread public disapproval of these cases. There are a thousand more high-profile people taking cocaine daily, and yet there are no reported cases. For these people, the highs of the drugs outweighs the risk. Carrie Fisher once remarked in 2010 that “if I’d been addicted to booze I’d be dead now, because you just go out and get it.” She made the point that easy access creates an addiction. With the high prices of these illegal highs, hidden addiction is out of reach for most of the public. Looking down on these people for their substance abuse might not be correct, because how many people would do it if they were given the opportunity, even involuntarily?

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