In March 1975 in Norfolk, England, 50-year-old bricklayer Alex Mitchell settled in to watch one of his favorite television series: The Goodies, a British comedy that aired on the BBC. As actor Bill Oddie exerted himself in a bit involving a spoof of kung-fu films, Mitchell began laughing. Loudly. He kept laughing and laughing, with his wife Nessie later estimating that he went on like this for 25 minutes or so. Then, with one climactic belly laugh, he slumped into his chair and died. Mitchell’s curious demise made headlines worldwide.
“It’s incredible,” Nessie said. “The doctor told me the left side of his heart failed … the laughter was just too much for him. The doctor told me it could happen to anyone.”
Could it, though? Do people really die of laughter?
No—not really. But laughter may exacerbate preexisting conditions that can kill you.
In 2019, Gizmodo posed the question to a number of physicians, including Duke University School of Medicine assistant professor of cardiology Jorge Antonio Gutierrez. The doctor largely dismissed the idea that a person could die of laughter, with a caveat. “Laughing can increase your intrathoracic pressure, and if you have an aortic aneurysm, that pressure can be transmitted into your vascular system, and it would rupture,” he said. “But in that case, you just happened to laugh: the laughing didn’t get you. Somebody can have a heart attack while they’re laughing, but they were going to have a heart attack no matter what.”
Gutierrez said he knew of only one reported case of death via laughter in medical literature: a 50-year-old woman who was on medication that can cause an irregular heartbeat. A prolonged laughing fit caused a fatal arrhythmia.
Laughing can also prompt other bodily dysfunction, at least in theory. Vocal cords could seize up, blocking the flow of oxygen; laughing could also cause one to aspirate food into the trachea; certain connective tissue disorders, like Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, could prompt adverse reactions to spikes in blood pressure, but that's not limited to laughing. Straining or holding your breath could do it, too.
So if a laughing fit merely exacerbates a potentially fatal condition, what happened to poor Alex Mitchell? In 2012, the BBC reported that Mitchell may have suffered from Long QT Syndrome, an abnormality in the heart’s electrical system. The condition can be hereditary. Mitchell’s granddaughter, Lisa, was diagnosed with it in 2012.
The BBC, for its part, was properly polite about Mitchell’s fate. Said a spokesperson upon learning of the viewer’s demise: “We are very sorry, indeed, to learn what happened.”
Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org.