Bruce Lee died after consuming too much water, claims a new study

Almost 50 years after the death of the legendary Bruce Lee, researchers may have actually found the cause; too much water.
Christopher McFadden
Publicity portrait of Bruce Lee from the film "The Way of the Dragon."
Publicity portrait of Bruce Lee from the film "The Way of the Dragon."

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Almost 50 years ago, on July 20, 1973, the legendary martial artist Bruce Lee passed away at 32 years of age. Supposedly in the prime of his life and incredibly physically fit, his unexpected death shocked his fans.

Theories abound regarding the cause, ranging from assassination to natural causes, but it remains a mystery today. However, new research may have finally found the cause.

A new study published in the journal Clinical Kidney Journal appears to reveal that Bruce Lee's untimely demise was likely brought on by consuming too much water.

Yes, too much water.

How did Bruce Lee die?

At the Golden Harvest film studio in Hong Kong on May 10, 1973, Lee passed out during an automated dialogue replacement session for the movie "Enter the Dragon." He was moved to Hong Kong Baptist Hospital because he was experiencing convulsions and migraines, and there, physicians discovered cerebral edema.

Bruce Lee died after consuming too much water, claims a new study
Bruce Lee statue in Hong Kong.

They administered mannitol, which helped to lessen the edema. On the day of his death, the same headache and cerebral edema that were present after his initial collapse returned.

To create a movie with actor George Lazenby, Lee traveled to Hong Kong in July 1973. Lee met producer Raymond Chow at his house at 2 pm, according to Lee's wife Linda, to talk about filming the movie "Game of Death."

They worked until 4 pm; then, they traveled to the Taiwanese actress and Lee's colleague Betty Ting Pei's house. At Ting's house, the three discussed the script before Chow left to go to a dinner meeting.

Later, Lee said he had a headache, so Ting gave him Equagesic, a painkiller with the sedative meprobamate and the painkiller aspirin. He went to lie down for a nap at about 7:30. Chow visited the flat after Lee failed to show up for dinner but was unsuccessful in rousing him. After a doctor spent ten minutes trying to revive Lee, an ambulance was called, and Lee was taken to Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Lee was pronounced dead upon arrival.

Although there were no apparent outward wounds, Lee's brain had significantly enlarged, going from 1,400 to 1,575 grams (a 13% increase), according to postmortem records. Equagesic was detected in his body during the autopsy.

In an interview on October 15, 2005, Chow said that Lee passed away due to an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer meprobamate, which Chow identified as a substance frequently found in painkillers. Lee's death was formally classified as a "death by misadventure" when the doctors made their announcement.

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What did the study find?

In 1973, the cause of death was determined to be cerebral edema when the martial arts instructor passed away in Hong Kong.

However, the new study found that Lee drank more water than his body could tolerate and that hyponatremia was the actual cause of death.

The issue happens when a person's blood sodium levels drop because of the excess water in their body, which prevents them from peeing quickly or effectively enough.

According to the study, Lee also used marijuana, had previously hurt his kidneys doing martial arts, and had a "chronic fluid intake" that included alcohol and a juice-based diet.

"We hypothesize that Bruce Lee died from a specific form of kidney dysfunction: the inability to excrete enough water to maintain water homeostasis," wrote the researchers, a group of doctors from Autonomous University in Madrid.

"This may lead to hyponatremia, cerebral edema, and death within hours if excess water intake is not matched by water excretion in urine," they added.

Bruce Lee died after consuming too much water, claims a new study
Bruce Lee is as famous in death as he was in life.

"Given that hyponatremia is frequent, as is found in up to 40 percent of hospitalized persons and may cause death due to excessive water ingestion even in young, healthy persons, there is a need for a wider dissemination of the concept that excessive water intake can kill," they said.

The researchers highlighted that doctors may have discovered brain enlargement in 1973 due to hyponatremia.

"Lee made famous the quote 'Be water my friend,' but excess water appears to have ultimately killed him," the researchers conclude.

Long-standing theories concerning Lee's cause of death have suggested that he died of heatstroke, poisoning—possibly unintentionally after taking tainted aspirin—or was murdered by triad criminals.

A magical family curse has also been suggested a hypothesis reportedly developed retroactively when Lee's son Brandon died tragically on the set of "The Crow" in 1993.

However, if the new study is correct, the cause may be much less dramatic. It also serves as a warning to drink anything, including water, in moderation.

It should also go without saying that news of this kind should not be used as an excuse not to drink enough water daily!

Study abstract:

"Bruce Lee brought attention to martial arts in the Western world and popularized the quote 'Be water, my friend.' Lee died at the age of 32 years in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973, under mysterious circumstances. The cause of death is unknown, although numerous hypotheses have been proposed, from assassination by gangsters to the more recent suggestion in 2018 that he died from heatstroke. The necropsy showed cerebral oedema. A prior episode was diagnosed as cerebral oedema 2 months earlier. We now propose, based on an analysis of publicly available information, that the cause of death was cerebral oedema due to hyponatraemia. In other words, we propose that the kidney's inability to excrete excess water killed Bruce Lee. In this regard, Lee had multiple risk factors for hyponatraemia that may have included high chronic fluid intake, factors that acutely increase thirst (marijuana) and factors that decrease the ability of the kidneys to excrete water by either promoting secretion of antidiuretic hormone (ADH) or interfering with water excretion mechanisms in kidney tubules: prescription drugs (diuretics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, opioids, antiepileptic drugs), alcohol, chronic low solute intake, a past history of acute kidney injury and exercise."

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