It’s now more than 40 years since arguably the world’s most famous singer passed away. On August 16, 1977, at the age of just 42, Elvis Presley was pronounced dead at his Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee. And although the cause of death was given as cardiac arrhythmia, some insist there was more to his death than met the eye. But now one doctor has proposed a shocking new theory about what caused the King to breathe his last on that fateful summer’s day.
By the time Elvis Presley performed his infamous Aloha From Hawaii concert in 1973, the one that cemented his image as a crooning, jumpsuit-wearing mother’s favourite, his health was already deteriorating. Twice during 1973 the star had suffered an overdose (despite his earlier hatred for drugs, by now the King was in the grips of a dangerous addiction) and by the end of the year his drug abuse had seen him confined to the hospital. On one occasion, he spent three days in a coma. Things weren’t looking good.
So where was he getting these drugs, the same ones he’d hated so much back in 1970 that he’d called in on President Nixon to discuss how to prevent their use? Enter George Nichopoulos or Dr. Nick, Presley’s physician for more than ten years. Dr. Nick was the man who’d been prescribing Elvis his own personal concoction of uppers and downers, depressants and stimulants.
In 1995 Dr. Nick was stripped of his medical license after admitting overprescribing drugs to his patients. But in a subsequent interview with The Guardian, the physician claimed that the decision to revoke his license had its roots in Elvis’ death. In the interview, Dr. Nick said he did the things he did because he “cared too much.” But when the autopsy into the King’s death was reopened in 1994, coroner Joseph Davis found no evidence to suggest that drugs were involved.
However, Presley was in terrible health when he died. In a toxicology report following his death he tested positive for ten different prescription medicines. He weighed around 350 pounds and had been in and out of hospital for some time, requiring near-permanent care. Tragically, towards the end of his life he could barely play a proper gig, yet he still refused to stop his relentless touring.
Moreover, initial reports from the autopsy suggested drugs played no part in Elvis’ death. In fact, in 1979 a forensic pathologist, Cyril Wecht, found that Elvis’ death was accidental and had been caused by a combination of depressants that had affected the star’s central nervous system. Then, in the subsequent 1994 enquiry, a heart attack was named as the main cause of death.
Recently, however, new evidence has come to light that suggests Elvis’ death may have been caused by something else altogether. Writing in Practical Pain Management, Dr. Forest Tennant claims that rather than dying from a drug overdose or a heart attack, Elvis’ demise was as a result of an autoimmune inflammatory disorder, caused by a traumatic head injury. This was, of course, aided by several things: a heavy addiction to prescription drugs, a bad diet leading to increased weight, and also, Tennant says, poor genetics.
Looking through the old autopsy files, Tennant ascertained that Elvis had a rare genetic disorder called antitrypsin deficiency, which can cause the lung disease emphysema. The autopsy report also disclosed that Elvis suffered from autoimmune disease, something that Dr. Nick’s records from when Presley was alive also confirmed. Tennant’s beliefs were confirmed: at the time of his death, the King had an autoimmune inflammatory disorder.
And the drugs? Well, these too had an influence. Tennant found that Presley wasn’t metabolizing the vast amounts of codeine he had taken – ten times the regular dose – leading him to believe that Elvis had a liver problem, resulting from a defective enzyme. Backing this up, hospital files stated that Elvis was intolerant to alcohol and was “allergic to codeine.”
Tennant’s main concern, however, was an episode in 1973 in which the King injured his head. Tennant says that Dr. Nick told him that Elvis was never the same after this incident. And this head injury, Tennant believes, played a crucial role in Presley’s ill health and subsequent death.
So what happened? Well, at the time Presley was holed up in Los Angeles, getting ready to film the critically-panned musical Clambake. While in the bathroom, Elvis tripped over a television cord and fell. He then whacked his head on the edge of a hard porcelain bathtub, knocking himself spark out. Eventually he regained consciousness and, through his cursing, subsequently woke up his then-girlfriend Priscilla.
Presley had a large lump on his head and, crucially, admitted to medics that he thought he had genuinely hurt himself. Moreover, he wasn’t his usual self in the days following the accident and even experienced hallucinations. And it was after this severe head injury that his behavior started to become somewhat erratic.
For instance, in 1970 Elvis decided on a whim to visit the White House to speak to President Nixon; he didn’t have an appointment but flew to Washington regardless. Elsewhere, he began handing out expensive presents to total strangers, and in 1975 he even treated himself to a spontaneous facelift.
Tennant believes that Presley’s autoimmune disorder either began, or worsened, as a direct consequence of this and other head traumas. It’s also possible his condition caused him severe bodily pain and acute headaches, both of which may explain Presley’s drug use as an instance of self-medication.
Of course, Elvis’ dependency on prescription drugs use prior to his fall also played a part in his health problems. In fact, Tennant believes that it was Presley’s deteriorating physical and mental state that may have led to his fall in the first place. Furthermore, Elvis’ drug use would have adversely affected his brain’s ability to function properly.
So in the end, Presley’s death, says Tennant, was really caused by a combination of factors: a generally unhealthy lifestyle, and a long-time misuse of prescription drugs. These contributed to a fall, a head trauma, and an autoimmune disorder. His poor general condition was also exacerbated by a shoddy diet and other ailments towards the end of his life.
But Tennant thinks something good could come out of this understanding of Elvis’ circumstances and illness. Traumatic brain injury (TBI), as happened to Elvis in 1967, has only come to be understood relatively recently: it wouldn’t have been diagnosed to the extent it is today during Presley’s lifetime.
Furthermore, Tennant believes his report can help bring awareness about the negative effects of TBI. He believes it could shine a light on the personality changes that TBI can engender, as well as the pain that sufferers experience all over their body. In turn, this should help research into suitable prevention and treatment options.
Presley’s death was a tragic event in the history of rock’n’roll – he didn’t have the nickname the King for nothing. Hopefully, Tennant’s recent examination into the circumstances surrounding Elvis’ untimely death will help bring awareness to sufferers of TBI and autoimmune inflammatory disorders.
Elvis Presley was, in many respects, a kind and generous man. After all, he spent two years of his life serving his country in the military and was often ready to sign autographs and meet fans. The way he lived, and the music he played, brought joy to millions of people; perhaps something good can come out of his death, too.