It can be a bit of a mystery when someone dies in their sleep. What does this phrase even mean? How do people die in their sleep? Usually, it means that the person died without any pain or awareness. That’s why you may hear people say, “I hope to wake up dead.” Let’s look at some of the most common ways people die during sleep.

Why Do People Die in Their Sleep?

The fact is that we often sleep one-third of our lives away. So it makes sense that some of us would pass away while sleeping. Many individuals die in their sleep without others knowing of any pain or struggle. In other words, passing away in your sleep can be a peaceful way to go.

As a young person thinking about death, you may wonder how you’ll die someday. You might even say you’d like to die in your sleep someday. Usually, when you think of someone dying in their sleep, you imagine an older adult whose body just gives out after so many years.

However, often there are underlying causes for death during sleep. Some parts of our bodies are just more crucial to sustaining our life. When certain medical conditions remain uncontrolled, they can result in death, whether asleep or awake.

Common Life-Threatening Conditions

Uncontrolled Diabetes

Low blood sugar can put you into a coma that leads to death. If you fall into a coma while asleep, no one may understand what is happening in your body. You could pass away before anyone realized you were ill.

Refractory Epilepsy

Sudden Unexpected Death In Epilepsy (SUDEP) occurs in individuals whose epilepsy is uncontrolled. These seizures often cause “seizures that affect the body’s respiratory, cardiac and electrocerebral functions.” (1)

Heart Arrhythmias

The heart’s electrical system can experience irregularities. The synchronization of the electrical charges can fall out of rhythm, causing irregular, fast, or slow contractions.

Asystole is a cardiac arrest rhythm when doctors can’t detect the heart’s electrical activity. Atrial fibrillation or flutter may also undermine cardiac function. (2)

Sleep Apnea

Untreated sleep apnea can contribute to long periods of not breathing during sleep. Sleep apneas increase the risks of heart attack and stroke. Sleeping on your back often increases apneic episodes. 

“Researchers found that patients with obstructive sleep apnea are more than 2.5 times as likely to experience sudden cardiac death between 12 a.m. and 6 a.m. as those without obstructive apnea.” (3)

In addition, in a “five-year study of nearly 11,000 people, those with obstructive sleep apnea had a higher risk of sudden cardiac death. Your risk is most significant if you are 60 and older with moderate to severe apnea. When their oxygen saturation levels dipped below 78% — preventing air from flowing into the lungs — their risk increased by 80%.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest

The people at risk for sudden cardiac death during sleep are those who have suffered a heart attack or other underlying cardiac conditions.

Adults in their mid-30s to mid-40s suffer sudden cardiac death most frequently. It affects men twice as often as women. About 80% of sudden cardiac deaths occur in men. Men with a previous heart attack are at exceptionally high risk.” (4)

Congestive Heart Failure

If someone suffers from congestive heart failure (CHF) long enough, heart failure occurs. Fluid builds up in the lungs causing shortness of breath and swollen feet and legs. If the heart can’t pump the blood, it stops circulating, and death can occur.

Stroke and Aneurysms

An irregular heart rhythm can cause a clot to travel to the brain and cause a stroke. Other risk factors include high blood pressure.

Aneurysms often occur when high blood pressure causes a ballooned area to form on a blood vessel. If the ballooned-out blood vessel leaks or bursts, you can die suddenly.

Respiratory Arrest

Lungs exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the environment. When they do not function properly, oxygen levels fall, and respiratory failure may result. Many conditions can cause lung failure. Seeing a pulmonologist can help keep your lungs healthier.

Breathing Changes Before Death

When someone is about to pass away, they will often experience Cheyne-Stokes respirations. These are abnormal breathing patterns involving a period of fast, shallow breathing followed by slow, heavier breathing and moments without any breath at all, called apneas. The pattern repeats in a cycle that typically lasts 45 to 90 seconds. (5)

If you hear a loved one breathing strangely in this way or not breathing at all, it’s crucial to wake them and seek medical help. 

Final Thoughts

While these are some of the most common ways people die in their sleep, there are many other causes as well.

So, how can you protect yourself from dying in your sleep? The best way to prevent many of these conditions is to live a healthy lifestyle and get regular check-ups. If you have diabetes, make sure to keep it under control. 

If you may have sleep apnea, talk to your ENT doctor about a sleep study. See your cardiologist for heart problems and pulmonologist for lung failure. Seek out other specialists as needed. And eat your vegetables!

By understanding how people die in their sleep, we can be more vigilant about our health and ensure we’re doing everything we can to protect ourselves. 

We all know that death is possible, but we can live longer lives with proper health management. We can also help protect the loved ones we are responsible for by ensuring regular checkups and management of medical conditions.

Sometimes dying in our sleep is the best death we can hope for. But preventing an early death is often possible with healthy lifestyle changes.

We Can Help

At Renaissance Funeral Home and Crematory, we work closely with families whose loved ones have passed away. Often, families are unprepared to lose a family member. If you are struggling with what to do next, we can help you take next steps. Contact us to learn more about how we can help you create beautiful and memorable events to celebrate your loved one’s life!

Also, let us know if we can help you draw up a preplan so that your family doesn’t have to handle your eventual death with uncertainty, not knowing what you would have wanted. Creating a preplan gives your family time to rest and grieve rather than feeling the stress of planning your services.