5 Legendary Rockstars and the Diseases That Claimed Their Lives

Have you ever wondered what could have been if your favorite rocker lived another 20 years? How much more, great music they could have produced? How many more millions of people they could have entertained?

By understanding the health problems and, ultimately, the deaths of others, we can better understand how to live our lives better. Specifically, which risk factors to avoid and what lifestyle modifications to make to live longer and more healthy lives.

Here’s a look at five legendary rockers and their causes of death.

David Bowie: Liver Cancer

David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

On January 11, 2016, David Bowie died at age 69. His eclectic sensibility and brilliant sense of artistry combined with his incredible voice, multi-instrumental talents, and theatrical showmanship quickly secured him a place in the pantheon of rock. 

In his New York Times obituary, all we learned about the cause of Bowie’s death is that it was “cancer,” which had been treated for 18 months. Cancer, as we all know, is a broad term and there are many types. Later media accounts point to liver cancer as the cause of his death, but his family has stayed mum on the subject.

Liver cancer kills about 30,000 Americans a year. Many cases of liver cancer are preventable. Here are some ways you can reduce your risk:

  • avoid exposure to the hepatitis virus (there’s a vaccine for hepatitis B)
  • maintain a healthy weight (overweight people are at higher risk for fatty liver disease)
  • limit exposure to alcohol
  • stop smoking
  • avoid exposure to chemical carcinogens like Alfatoxin as well as certain pesticides and insecticides

Prince: Opioid Overdose

Prince and Appollonia

Prince died at the age of 57 on April 21, 2016. In the '80s, Prince ruled the charts with three albums that mixed rock and roll and dance funk in ground-shattering ways.

For several weeks, it was unclear as to the exact cause of Prince’s death. He was first found unresponsive in an elevator at his mansion and recording studio in suburban Minneapolis. We later learned the results of toxicology tests done during the autopsy, revealing that he did, in fact, die of an opioid overdose. More specifically, an overdose on Fentanyl, a very powerful painkiller. It was also reported that, prior to his death, he had once survived a Percocet overdose.

Opioid intoxication leads to decreased breathing, unconsciousness, and death. Treatment includes breathing support, intravenous fluids, and Naloxone. According to the sheriff’s office, Prince was found with no signs of trauma and did not receive Narcan during the emergency response call. 

Freddy Mercury: HIV/AIDS

Freddy Mercury

On November 24, 1991, Freddy Mercury died of bronchopneumonia. In the days preceding his death, Mercury publicly announced that he had AIDS.

Mercury was the dazzling lead singer and songwriter of Queen, the legendary British rock band that combined pop, hard rock, heavy metal, cabaret and even opera.  

Unfortunately at the time of Mercury’s death, treatment for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, was nowhere near as good as it is today. Nowadays, people who take their antiretroviral medications on a daily basis can expect to live long and otherwise healthy lives.

Nevertheless, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2011 only 30 percent of people diagnosed with HIV were receiving adequate treatment for the disease and had their infection under control.

Jerry Garcia: Heart Disease

Jerry Garcia

Jerry Garcia — genius guitarist, singer, and songwriter of the psychedelic rock band The Grateful Dead — died of a heart attack a week after his 53rd birthday.

Garcia was plagued by numerous health problems throughout his life. He had diabetes, was overweight, smoked, and used heroin. All these factors likely played big roles in his eventual death from heart disease, each of which are preventable.

Unfortunately, Garcia's story is a cautionary tale concerning the repercussions of an unhealthy diet, probable lack of exercise, and drug use. Although heart disease does have a genetic component, environmental factors, such as unhealthy lifestyle choices, often exacerbate illness.

Frank Zappa: Prostate Cancer

Frank Zappa

In 1993, Frank Vincent Zappa died of prostate cancer at the age of 52. Prostate cancer typically plagues senior men and is sometimes referred to as an “old man’s cancer.” However, Zappa was middle-aged and his death due to prostate cancer surprised a lot of people.

Most men who succumb to prostate cancer do so between the ages of 75 and 84. In fact, many older men with prostate cancer die of some other disease or condition first (like heart disease) before ever dying of prostate cancer.

Many older men never receive treatment because the cancer is so slow growing. These individuals are usually placed under active surveillance or a period of watchful waiting. Of note, the United States Preventive Task Force (USPTF) recommends against routine screening for prostate cancer.

With prostatic malignancies or cancer, the risk of developing symptoms or dying of the disease is balanced by the potential adverse effects of intervention as well as the presence of other diseases (comorbidities). Ultimately, several factors guide potential treatment, including Gleason score, symptoms, stage of diagnosis, PSA levels, and life expectancy


Carr BI. Tumors of the Liver and Biliary Tree. In: Kasper D, Fauci A, Hauser S, Longo D, Jameson J, Loscalzo J. eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2015.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website. Acccessed on 5/18/2016.

US Services Preventive Taskforce website. Accessed on 5/18/2016.

Usatine RP, Smith MA, Chumley HS, Mayeaux EJ, Jr.. Chapter 73. Prostate Cancer. In: Usatine RP, Smith MA, Chumley HS, Mayeaux EJ, Jr.. eds. The Color Atlas of Family Medicine, 2e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2013

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