Everyone's heard the phrase "dying in your sleep." But what does dying in your sleep feel like? Is it really peaceful, like Grandma's obituary said? What actually happens when someone dies in their sleep?
What dying in your sleep is actually like—i.e., what happens to the body, since we have no firsthand accounts—depends on the true cause of death, of which there are many. Science tells us that, yes, it is actually possible to die a seemingly painless death while remaining asleep.
But what are the facts behind the obituaries? What can actually cause you to die in your sleep? Read on to learn what the phrase really means.
Elizabeth Simpson, health reporter for The Virginian-Pilot, decided to investigate the phrase “died peacefully in his sleep” before including the phrase in her own father’s obituary in 2011. Simpson discovered that there is one condition that is most commonly the cause of someone dying in their sleep—and it turned out to be what technically killed her father.
Here’s what Dr. Simone Gold, an ER doctor from California, told Simpson: "If a patient simply dies, without any symptoms, which of course we don't know unless it is witnessed, but when that is what occurs, absolutely and without question the most common reason would be a cardiac arrhythmia, specifically ventricular fibrillation or pulse-less ventricular tachycardia.” Basically, your heart starts to beat differently than it usually does, which leads to death.
Hearing that someone “died in their sleep” might also mean carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s called the silent killer for a reason: an entire family can fall asleep in a house with a carbon monoxide leak and just never wake up.
The CDC says more than 400 Americans die this way each year. It warns that those who are “sleeping or drunk” can die before experiencing a single symptom of CO poisoning.
Here’s a weird one: you could “die in your sleep” after being electrocuted. How? Dr. Patrick Lantz, a professor of pathology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine says the conditions would have to be just right. Let’s say there’s a faulty wire in a hairdryer.
Lantz says touching that hairdryer in the bathroom late at night before going to bed could give off a shock, but an irregular heartbeat caused by that shock may not start that second:
"It may give them enough time to lie down on the bed and fall asleep or fall down on the bed. They might not be found right next to the device that caused the electrocution."
Researchers at UCLA think a condition called “central sleep apnea” might be behind a lot of cases of elderly people dying in their sleep. It’s so sneaky it can go totally undetected, leading examiners to attribute heart failure as the cause of death instead.
Central sleep apnea typically affects people older than 65 and is caused by losing brain cells that help control your breathing. Older folks with already weak hearts and lungs stop breathing during sleep because of a lack of those cells. They’re unable to rouse themselves naturally and they die from lack of oxygen.