How Do People Die In Their Sleep?

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Many people hope to die in their sleep. Compared to other causes of death, passing away while asleep seems simple and peaceful. And for most people, it is.

While the mechanics of dying in your sleep seem uneventful, there still is always a specific cause of death. Some people die of sleep apnea. Others have a cardiac arrest, or heart attack, while sleeping. Learn more about these and other possible causes of death during sleep.

Heart Problems

Sudden, unexpected death–either during the day or the night–is usually due to a heart problem. Abnormal heart rhythms, called arrhythmias, are the most common cause of sudden death. Deadly arrhythmias include ventricular fibrillation, a condition in which the lower chambers of the heart quiver rather than pump blood (and oxygen) effectively, and ventricular tachycardia, a fast, abnormal heart rate.

In some cases, the affected individual may have had an undiagnosed heart condition that increased his or her susceptibility to dying due to an abnormal heart rhythm.

A heart attack can also cause death during sleep. During a heart attack, the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen. Parts of the heart muscle become damaged or die, and the heart becomes unable to effectively pump blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. Cardiac arrest—when the heart suddenly stops beating—can cause death in a manner of minutes.

Both old and young people can die of heart problems. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, sudden cardiac death (either during sleep or during the daytime) is a leading cause of death of young athletes.

Stroke

A stroke interferes with oxygen supply to the brain. Strokes can be caused by a blood clot or a brain bleed. A brain aneurysm (burst blood vessel) or massive stroke can cause death during sleep.

Epilepsy

Epilepsy, a seizure disorder, is associated with an increased risk of death during sleep. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, each year, more than 1 in 1,000 people with epilepsy die as a result of sudden unexpected death in epilepsy, or SUDEP. Those with poorly controlled epilepsy are at greater risk of dying from SUDEP.

People with epilepsy can decrease their risk of death from SUDEP by keeping their condition under control. Work with your doctor or healthcare providers to find an effective treatment plan and take your medication as prescribed.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Sadly, some nighttime deaths are the result of accidental tragedies, such as carbon monoxide poisoning. Because carbon monoxide is a colorless and odorless gas that can be released by malfunctioning furnaces or other common household appliances (including water heaters and dryers), it’s possible to go to bed with no idea that you’re bedding down in a dangerous environment.

You can install carbon monoxide detectors in your home to alert you to potentially dangerous levels of this gas.

Diabetes

According to a 2011 study published in Diabetic Medicine, type 1 diabetes increases the risk of sudden unexplained death, often during the night, in young otherwise healthy people. The term “dead in bed” has been used to describe this syndrome, and accounts for approximately 6% of all deaths of people under the age of 40 who have type 1 diabetes.

The exact mechanism of nighttime death of people with diabetes is not fully understood. In some cases, severe hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) may be the cause of death. Diabetes is also related to heart disease, so it’s possible some diabetes-related deaths during sleep are caused by abnormal heart rhythms.

Sleep Disorders

Sleep apnea, a condition characterized by pauses of breath during sleep, may cause death in some individuals. However, it’s difficult to say if sleep apnea and pauses in breath (which may decrease oxygen levels throughout the body) directly cause death, or if death is due to heart problems, which commonly occur in people with sleep apnea. Former Green Bay Packer Reggie White died in 2004 at the age of 43 due to a cardiac arrhythmia and sleep apnea.

Other sleep disorders may also cause death during sleep. Sleepwalking, for instance, can lead to dangerous and potentially deadly situations.

Sleep paralysis, which is characterized by full consciousness but an ability to move, is not believed to be a cause of death during sleep. According to the United Kingdom’s National Health Services, sleep paralysis is “scary but harmless,” and most people who experience it will only have 1 to 2 episodes in their lifetime.

Some people suffer from somniphobia, a fear of sleep that includes anxiety about dying mid-slumber. This can lead to insomnia and other sleep disorders that affect quality of life and increase risk of many serious conditions. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns about your sleep and to manage your individual health risk factors, so you can enjoy many healthy nights to come.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 4
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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