How Did Karen Carpenter Die? Full Explanation

Karen Carpenter had one of the best singing voices of all time and her time, and her work with her brother as The Carpenters made them one of the best-selling recording artists of all time. Though their 14-year career together would be lauded for its impact on artists to come in the future, it would be tragically cut short by her death in 1983. In this article, we’ll talk about how Karen Carpenter died, what led up to her death, and the real-life struggles she dealt with back then that are still around today. 

Karen Carpenter’s Short-Lived Career

Carpenters - Rainy Days And Mondays

Carpenter was known for having one of the most beautiful singing voices of the 70s. She would find her start in the music industry alongside her brother and his college friend Wes Jacobs, creating the Richard Carpenter Trio. While they would earn a contract with RCA Records, they would never release music under that name. They would have some success, but Carpenter would rise to stardom alongside her brother as part of The Carpenters. 

1973 – Publicity photo of The Carpenters in the Billboard Magazine, Special Section, page 24. A&M Records(Life time: Published before 1978 without a copyright notice), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

A&M signed the pair to a contract in 1969, with Carpenter taking the lead singing role in addition to playing drums. Their unique sound would cement their place in the music landscape. Her voice would be lauded as one of the best female voices in the world. Their 14-year career would comprise 10 albums and numerous television specials. Today, the pair stands as one of the best-selling musical groups of all time with over 100 million worldwide record sales

Diet Culture and Her Well-Known Issues

Dieting is extremely common in the US, even today. In the last 12 months alone, almost half of all Americans have tried to lose weight with a diet regime. But it isn’t just the average middle-aged person who diets. The effects also go down to college, and sometimes, even high school students. 

August 8, 2015 – Refreshing mint ginger lemon drink for keto. Raj Patel – Keto Coach, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the US, dieting is somewhat of a cultural norm. There’s always a new fad diet that promises you’ll lose weight or feel great. Whether that be the carnivore diet, keto, paleo, or one of the paid subscription diets like Atkins or Nutrisystem. Most are marketed as quick fixes for health problems and have no long-term benefits. Others can help you lose weight, but the restrictions placed on your food intake often end up causing you to gain weight back once you end the diet. 

January 3, 2013 – The sweetest pineapple, also known as Queen Formosa, is one of the Philippines’ sweetest varieties of pineapple. Image source: Ramon FVelasquez, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s also no shortage of articles online documenting the insane diets people were following in the 70s and 80s in the US. Some even revolved around eating a single thing, like grapefruit or pineapple. But those ridiculous calorie restrictions involved in them were incredibly unhealthy. People didn’t care, as they were driven by the dieting culture of the US to try to be as skinny as they possibly could. 

For the most part, a simple reduction in caloric intake and an increase in exercise is all it takes to lose weight. To do so in a healthy way takes a lot of time though, as you’re recommended to lose only a pound or two per week. Severe diets can give great short-term results, I lost 20 pounds in two weeks on a keto diet with minimal calories. But it isn’t a sustainable model. The unsustainability of many “effective” diets is what leads people to eating disorders

Rather than lose weight slowly or follow a strict diet, there are some ways to eat whatever you want and continue to lose weight. Vomiting directly after a meal removes most of the food you ate from your system. It lets you eat whatever you want, without absorbing the calories and nutrients of that food. This is largely a way to trick your body, as you overeat and get a feeling of fullness, then cover up the hunger pangs with nausea afterward.

January 17, 2020 – Bulimia Nervosa. Image source: Johannes Baltasar Hessler, Jörg Heuser, Sandra Schlegl, Tabea Bauman, Martin Greetfeld & Ulrich Voderholzer, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A strict diet combined with purging—inducing vomiting or excretion—is called bulimia. It’s an eating disorder that is used by people to avoid gaining weight. We’ll go over it at more length later, but what you need to know right now is that Carpenter struggled with bulimia thanks to idolizing other thin stars and struggling with her own self-image. When this is combined with extremely low body weight and other issues, you’re also dealing with anorexia nervosa. 

By 1975, she weighed only 91 pounds or 41 kilograms. Seven years later, she had been admitted to the hospital and given intravenous nutrition. She had begun dieting as early as high school, trying to stay as slim as possible and dealing with eating disorders for all of her adult life. By the time of her death, she had been publicly dealing with anorexia for years. 

The Story and Official Cause of Karen Carpenter’s Death

On This Day: 17 December 1982

By the end of 1982, Carpenter was committed to reinvigorating her career, starting by finalizing her divorce from Tom Burris and beginning to work on a new album. Her final performance would come in December of that year, singing Christmas carols for her children and other students at the Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, California.

On the other hand, her final public performance would come in January 1983, as she appeared at a get-together of past Grammy winners, meant to commemorate the award show’s 25th anniversary. Attendees of the event said she seemed tired but in good spirits, going as far as telling others she had a lot of living left to do. 

Sadly, February would be the last time anyone saw Carpenter. She visited her brother on the first, discussing plans for scheduling a tour together. On the fourth, she was scheduled to sign her divorce papers. She ultimately would not make it to that meeting. 

Metronome 6 bpm 🎼

Early in the day and shortly after waking up, she collapsed in the walk-in closet of her parent’s home. Paramedics would later find her lying on the floor unconscious, with a heart rate of six beats per minute. For reference, that’s one heartbeat every 10 seconds. She would be taken in an ambulance to the hospital, but would shortly be pronounced dead at Downey Community Hospital. 

May 20, 2015 – Woman testing her blood sugar levels. Image source: Reversing Your Diabetes Today, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The cardiac arrest would be the final cause of her death, however, that condition was brought on by quite a few other factors. An autopsy, released a month after her death, attributed it to “emetine cardiotoxicity due to or as a consequence of anorexia nervosa.” At the time of her death, her blood sugar level was recorded at 1,100 milligrams per deciliter. That’s 10 times higher than a normal person’s blood sugar level. So, what exactly does that mean?

Carpenter dealt with an extreme case of anorexia and bulimia. We’ll go over what both of those are later, however, it’s important to note that her struggles with those conditions are what led to the cardiac arrest that would claim her life. While the coroner and her doctor would give disputing reports about what medications she was taking, there was little arguing over the cause of her death. 

Her autopsy ruled out drug abuse or overdose, two things you might think of first when it comes to big music stars. However, it was obvious that she was abusing some forms of medication.

Laxatives were used by her often to help food pass through her digestive tract faster, allowing her to eat while maintaining severe weight loss. The disputed claims revolved around the use of ipecac syrup, an over-the-counter medication that induces vomiting. While the coroner stated she used that in addition to laxatives and other medications, her doctor stated she never touched the stuff. 


Regardless of which person was right regarding Carpenter’s use of medications, constant use of emetics—vomit-inducing medications and laxatives—as well as her frail physical state, led to her heart giving out. 

Anorexia and Bulimia Explained

Carpenter’s death brought a lot of attention to conditions like anorexia nervosa. While it was apparent to many that something was wrong with her, the condition itself was not well-known. 

August 1975 – Publicity photo of The Carpenters in Billboard, page 2. Image source: A&M Records, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Anorexia nervosa is characterized by abnormally low body weight, intense fear of gaining weight, and distorted perception of your own weight. Carpenter herself saw pictures of herself and thought she was “heavy.” Control over one’s weight becomes a priority in a person’s life with this condition, disrupting most of their other activities. People typically abuse laxatives, diet aids, enemas, or vomit-inducing medications while dealing with the disorder. 

Bulimia is characterized as an eating disorder that often involves rounds of overeating followed by purging. Strict diets and extreme exercise are also often involved in the disorder, as well as an excessive concern over body weight and feelings of guilt or shame. 

In many cases, these two disorders go hand in hand. People who struggle with them literally waste away to nothing if the conditions are left unchecked.

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