Dying in sleep is the easiest way to go, but why does it happen? Find out what scientists believe causes a significant number of cases of nighttime deaths.
Can you die in your sleep? Of course you can. It’s the most humane way to die, but it can be devastating to the family left behind. What causes a person to go to sleep in the evening and not wake up the next morning?
According to a UCLA study discussed on Science Daily and published in Nature Neuroscience, dying in sleep may be due to loss of brain cells that signal the body to breathe. This occurs as a result of aging and a condition called central sleep apnea. Central sleep apnea is a disorder where a person stops breathing for short periods throughout the night, because the brain stops sending signals to the muscles that control breathing.
Researchers tested the idea that central sleep apnea plays a role in dying during sleep on rats by destroying certain nerve cells in the brain that signal the body to breathe. When they did this, the rats completely stopped breathing when they entered REM sleep. Then the rats went on to have pauses in their breathing during non-REM sleep and, finally, when they were fully awake.
How does this apply to humans and the risk of dying during sleep? Researchers believe humans have set number of nerve cells in the brain that tell the body to breathe. As we age, these cells are gradually lost, which increases the risk of central sleep apnea and the chance of dying during sleep.
Elderly people are more likely to die during sleep not only because they’ve lost more of nerve cells, but because they may have heart or lung problems that when combined with the nerve cell loss further raises the risk of not waking up in the morning. People who have degenerative neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s disease may also be more prone to sleep apnea, nerve cell loss and dying during sleep.
Of course, dying in sleep can come from other causes such as a fatal heart rhythm from undiagnosed heart disease or something catastrophic like a ruptured brain aneurysm – or even a severe imbalance in electrolytes. But sleep apnea and loss of brain cells that tell the body to breathe may play a role in a significant number of nighttime deaths that occur in older people.
Is there a way to reduce the risk of dying during sleep? If a doctor knows a person has central sleep apnea and loss of brain cells that tell the body to breathe, they can prescribe medications that stimulate breathing. If your partner notices you stop breathing for even short periods of time during the night, see a doctor for a full evaluation. Can you die in your sleep? You certainly can – so take any signs of apnea seriously.
Science Daily. “Nighttime Dying Linked to Sleep Apnea From Brain Cell Loss”