Have you ever heard of people dying in their sleep? It’s more common than you’d think. People without any signs of heart trouble and who are seemingly fit go to bed only to be found dead the next morning. Some say that these people died peacefully in their sleep, but for some family members, losing a loved one is such a quick and often unexplainable manner can be a shock. Many people are baffled by such a tragic occurrence that they grasp for any explanation (including myths or ancient folklore). Medical professionals and doctors, however, have pointed out that there are medical and scientific explanations as to the cause of death during sleep.

Image credit: en.wikipedia.org

Image credit: en.wikipedia.org

Scientific Theories

According to a number of scientists, the reason why some people die in their sleep or stop breathing in their sleep is due to the accumulative loss of cells in the area of the brain that controls breathing. This anomaly is a condition called central sleep apnoea. They also believe that many deaths in elderly people are misdiagnosed as heart failure. The study by researchers from the University of California was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. The researchers pinpointed a brainstem region that they called the preBötzinger complex as the central command post that takes care of normal breathing among mammals. They also discovered a small group of cells within this area was responsible for issuing the breathing commands.

They injected lab rats with a compound to kill more than half of the cells and then they monitored the progress of their breathing patterns. When the lab animals entered the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, the lab animals stopped breathing and were jolted to consciousness in order for the experiment to start again. They observed that over time, the breathing lapses became worse and spread to other phases of sleep. The researchers stated that the lab rats have 600 of these cells and humans have thousands which slowly decrease as a person ages. According to a different study lead by researcher Prof. Jack Feldman, the human brain can compensate for a 60% loss of preBötC (The pre-Bötzinger complex) but a continual decrease will eventually disrupt breathing patterns while sleeping. He also added that the human body has no reason to maintain cells beyond their average lifespan, which explains why the process becomes less frequent as we age and become more prone to sleep apnoea.

Image credit: www.techtimes.com

Image credit: www.techtimes.com

According to Frank Govan of the UK Sleep Apnoea trust, dying during sleep is caused by obstructive sleep apnoea or the collapse of the airways. He also stated that US researchers may be on the right track by linking the findings to central sleep apnoea and not on cot death or unexplained adult death.

Other Possible Causes of Death During Sleep

1. Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome (SADS)

Sudden Arrhythmia Death Syndrome or SADS is a term used to describe a sudden and undetermined cause of death among adults. The syndrome is usually present as a genetic heart conditions that causes sudden death among young adults and healthy people. People who suffer from SADS do not know they have heart issues. Arrhythmia refers to an irregular heartbeat, which means a person’s heart may beat too fast or too slow. SADS can also affect people who do not have any history of heart disease and appear to be fit and healthy.

2. Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS)

This condition was first recorded in the Philippines in 1915 and later in Japan in 1959. Most victims of this syndrome are South East Asian men. The syndrome has been surrounded by mystery and superstition every since it was first recorded. Many Filipinos believe that eating large quantities of carbohydrates before going to sleep can lead to SUNDS, or as they call it, bangungot. Victims do not have any history of heart disease and some symptoms point to arrhythmia. Some medical experts, however pointed out the cause is mostly due to acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis where the pancreas gets inflamed during sleep due to too many carbohydrates.

3. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)

Also known as crib death or cot death, this is one of the most painful and unexplainable causes of infant death. This syndrome usually affects babies or infants under 1 year old and the majority of deaths happen between 2-4 months of age. The infant is commonly found dead in the crib after putting them to sleep. Although the exact causes are still unknown, the possible causes include sleep arousal problems, birth defects, a reaction to an infection or an underlying biological vulnerability. Another cause may be accidental suffocation, hypothermia, hyperthermia or some form of neglect.

Image credit: www.theguardian.com

Image credit: www.theguardian.com

4. Old Age

As people age, the body cells slowly die and the body’s systems eventually fail. For example, a very old person who’s dying will lose their appetite, will lose bladder control, will feel tired and weak. One by one the body functions will shut down. In the case of old age, the most probable cause of death would be heart related.

5. Drugs & Alcohol

Overdosing on drugs alone is very dangerous. Combine that with alcohol and you’ve got a sure death wish. Alcohol and drugs can disturb a person’s natural sleep cycle, which makes their body weak and susceptible to disease and other infections. The worst case scenario is dying of respiratory failure. A person taking drugs for some time will develop tolerance to the sedative effects but not to the respiratory inhibitory effects. Breathing is controlled by the somatic and automatic nervous systems when a person is awake. When a person goes to sleep, the somatic system shuts down and the automatic breathing centre in the brain takes over. Any drugs or alcohol that suppresses the automatic breathing centres will cause sudden death during sleep.

Many people say that dying during sleep is the most peaceful way to go. Thanks to the research linked in this post, we are able to better understand the causes of this medical and scientific phenomenon.

About Author

Jon specialises in research and content creation for content marketing campaigns. He’s worked on campaigns for some of Australia's largest brands including across Technology, Cloud Computing, Renewable energy and Corporate event management. He’s an avid scooterist and musician.