Intended for healthcare professionals

Research Article

Community study of the causes of "natural" sudden death.

British Medical Journal 1988; 297 doi: (Published 03 December 1988) Cite this as: British Medical Journal 1988;297:1453
  1. A. C. Thomas,
  2. P. A. Knapman,
  3. D. M. Krikler,
  4. M. J. Davies
  1. British Heart Foundation Cardiovascular Pathology Unit, St. George's Hospital Medical School, London.


    Three hundred and fifty cases of "natural" sudden death within six hours of onset of symptoms in people ranging in age from 18 to 69 years in Wandsworth were studied using a detailed necropsy protocol to determine the cause of death. Sudden death occurred in 28 (8%) Asians and blacks, but because of the small number they were excluded from the study, leaving 322 cases. Ischaemic heart disease accounted for 189 (59%) of the 322 sudden deaths (155 (65%) men; 34 (41%) women) and no proportional increase in instantaneous compared with non-instantaneous sudden death was found. Non-ischaemic cardiac disease was the cause of sudden death in 24 cases (7.5%). Non-cardiac disease included pulmonary emboli, aortic aneurysms, and intracerebral haemorrhage and caused 89 (27.6%) deaths. Alcohol was the cause of nine deaths (2.8%) and in 11 (3.4%) cases (six men and five women) no cause of death was found. This study shows that although ischaemic heart disease is the single largest cause of sudden natural death there are other major causes.