Is undetected autonomic dysfunction responsible for sudden death in Type 1 diabetes mellitus? The 'dead in bed' syndrome revisited

Diabet Med. 1999 Aug;16(8):626-31. doi: 10.1046/j.1464-5491.1999.00121.x.


Aims: Sudden nocturnal death in young persons with Type 1 diabetes mellitus has been recently described, and is known as the 'dead in bed' syndrome. Its aetiology is unknown, and we have therefore explored the details of all papers recording the syndrome, to formulate a hypothesis of causation.

Methods: Literature review of 'dead in bed' reports as well as of nocturnal hypoglycaemia, and autonomic dysfunction in relation to baroreceptor-cardiac reflex sensitivity.

Results: Clinical reports of 'dead in bed' cases strongly suggest that nocturnal hypoglycaemia is a likely precipitant, but that the death is sudden and probably arrhythmic. Ventricular dysrhythmias may occur in the context of early autonomic neuropathy, with relative sympathetic overactivity, in young Type 1 diabetic persons.

Conclusion: We conclude that the 'dead in bed' syndrome probably occurs in Type 1 diabetic persons with early autonomic neuropathy, resulting in relative sympathetic overactivity. In such persons, risks of ventricular dysrhythmias will be compounded by nocturnal hypoglycaemia, which may be associated with an increase in the electrocardiographic Q-T interval, and Q-T dispersion. This could lead to the observed sudden death in undisturbed beds. Further research in this area is urgently needed, in particular into the possible protective use of drugs that modulate the autonomic nervous system.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / mortality
  • Autonomic Nervous System Diseases / physiopathology*
  • Circadian Rhythm
  • Death, Sudden, Cardiac*
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / mortality
  • Diabetes Mellitus, Type 1 / physiopathology*
  • Diabetic Neuropathies / mortality
  • Diabetic Neuropathies / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Models, Biological
  • Myocardial Infarction / mortality*