Causes of sudden death in patients with obstructive sleep apnea

J Forensic Sci. 2013 Sep;58(5):1171-4. doi: 10.1111/1556-4029.12220. Epub 2013 Jul 18.


There are few autopsy studies of patients dying suddenly with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). Twenty-five forensic autopsies of unexpected sudden death in individuals with OSA were reviewed. The causes of death were as follows: cardiomyopathy (n = 11); sudden unexpected death without morphologic findings (SUDNA, n = 6); and other cardiovascular diseases not related to OSA (n = 8). The cardiomyopathy group comprised five hearts with concentric left ventricular hypertrophy without dilatation and six with left ventricular diameter >4 cm (dilated cardiomyopathy). Four of six hearts in the SUDNA group showed right ventricular dilatation compared with seven of 11 showed cardiomyopathy and one of eight miscellaneous. The degree of obesity was greatest in the dilated cardiomyopathy group (10 of 11 obese) followed by the SUDNA group (four of six obese). The cardiac findings in patients dying suddenly and unexpectedly with OSA include nonspecific cardiomyopathy, other cardiac conditions, and hearts without a morphologic cause of death, which show frequent right ventricular dilatation as the only finding.

Keywords: cause of death; forensic science; obesity; obstructive sleep apnea; sudden death.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Cardiomyopathy, Dilated / mortality
  • Cardiomyopathy, Dilated / pathology
  • Central Nervous System Depressants / analysis
  • Death, Sudden / etiology*
  • Ethanol / blood
  • Female
  • Forensic Pathology
  • Heart Ventricles / pathology
  • Humans
  • Hypertrophy, Left Ventricular / mortality
  • Hypertrophy, Left Ventricular / pathology
  • Hypertrophy, Right Ventricular / mortality
  • Hypertrophy, Right Ventricular / pathology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Myocardium / pathology
  • Narcotics / analysis
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / analysis
  • Obesity / pathology
  • Organ Size
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Sleep Apnea, Obstructive / epidemiology*
  • Young Adult


  • Central Nervous System Depressants
  • Narcotics
  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Ethanol