Profiles in Heart Disease: George Carlin

The Story Behind the Comic's Death

George Carlin
Wikimedia Commons

The June 2008 death of comedian George Carlin, famous for his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine, leaves us with an important message: Drugs and alcohol can damage your heart. The 71-year-old Carlin, who openly discussed decades of substance abuse, died of congestive heart failure (CHF), a condition in which the heart can no longer pump enough blood to the body, depriving it of oxygen.

The comedian had a long history of cardiac problems, including three heart attacks in 1978, 1982 and 1991. In 2003 Carlin underwent surgery for arrhythmia; two years later, in 2005, he had suffered from heart failure. He also had angioplasty surgery twice.

Carlin reportedly kicked his cocaine habit on his own, but he continued to battle other addictions. In 2005 he entered a rehabilitation facility to treat alcohol and opioid abuse. A year later, he told The New York Times he'd kicked his habits and had no relapses: "There is no urge, no feeling, no pull or anything," he said.

The Lasting Effects of Drug Abuse

Although Carlin was able to put an end to his abuse, conquering addictions can't reverse the damage done. Substance abuse can have long-lasting effects on the heart:

  • Cocaine can cause fatal arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle), endocarditis (inflammation of the heart's inner lining), vascular thrombosis (buildup of fluid in the lungs) and dilated cardiomyopathy (enlarged heart).
  • Alcohol consumption raises triglyceride levels (fat in the blood), increases blood pressure and can cause cardiomyopathy and arrhythmia.
  • Vicodin can cause respiratory arrest, which can lead to cardiac arrest (sudden loss of heart function).

Carlin's Death & Legacy

On June 22, 2008 Carlin went to St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., complaining of chest pains, and died a few hours later.

During the 17 years following his last heart attack in 1991, Carlin continued to maintain a busy schedule, narrating "Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends" from 1991 to 1995; starring in the sitcom "The George Carlin Show" and such films as "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" and "Cars;" and writing his first book "Brain Droppings," which spent 40 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Carlin spent approximately 150 days a year on the road. He even performed in Las Vegas the weekend before his death.

All in all, Carlin penned three best-sellers, won four Grammys, starred in 14 HBO comedy specials, recording a whopping 22 comedy albums and hosted dozens of variety shows, including the very first episode of "Saturday Night Live" in 1975, during which Carlin was admittedly high on cocaine the entire time.

Just five days before his death, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts named Carlin the 2008 recipient of the prestigious Mary Twain Prize for American Humor. He received the award posthumously later that year.

"There's a reluctance to confront reality and a desire to soften unpleasant realities," Carlin is quoted as saying by CNN. Carlin's outer appearance didn't reflect his inner turmoil, and his willingness to talk about the reality of his addictions allows his life to serve as a cautionary tale to others.


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