Background and purpose: To prospectively investigate causes of death and the circumstances surrounding death in 302 patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The functional status of patients immediately before death was also determined.
Methods: Information was obtained from neurologists at ALS centres, patients' files, and, when deaths occurred outside a medical facility, attending physicians.
Results: Most patients (63%) died in a medical facility. The most frequently reported cause of death was respiratory failure (77%), including terminal respiratory insufficiency (58%), pneumonia (14%), asphyxia due to a foreign body (3%) and pulmonary embolism (2%). Ten per cent of patients died from other causes: post-surgical or traumatic conditions (5%), cardiac causes (3.4%), suicide (1.3%) and sudden death of unknown origin (0.7%). The cause of death could not be determined in 13% of cases (6% inside a medical facility and 25% outside). At the time of death, only 55% of patients were receiving riluzole, 33% were undergoing non-invasive ventilation, 3% had a tracheotomy and 37% a gastrostomy.
Conclusion: The information provided by this study helps to improve our understanding of the natural history of the disease and may help optimize the quality of care we can offer patients at the end of life.