Sudden Unexpected Death During Sleep in Familial Dysautonomia: A Case-Control Study

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Study Objectives

Sudden unexpected death during sleep (SUDS) is the most common cause of death in patients with familial dysautonomia (FD), an autosomal recessive disease characterized by sensory and autonomic dysfunction. It remains unknown what causes SUDS in these patients and who is at highest risk. We tested the hypothesis that SUDS in FD is linked to sleep-disordered breathing.


We retrospectively identified patients with FD who died suddenly and unexpectedly during sleep and had undergone polysomnography within the 18-month period before death. For each case, we sampled one age-matched surviving subject with FD that had also undergone polysomnography within the 18-month period before study. Data on polysomnography, EKG, ambulatory blood pressure monitoring, arterial blood gases, blood count, and metabolic panel were analyzed.


Thirty-two deceased cases and 31 surviving controls were included. Autopsy was available in six cases. Compared with controls, participants with SUDS were more likely to be receiving treatment with fludrocortisone (odds ratio [OR]; 95% confidence interval) (OR 29.7; 4.1-213.4), have untreated obstructive sleep apnea (OR 17.4; 1.5-193), and plasma potassium levels <4 mEq/L (OR 19.5; 2.36-161) but less likely to use noninvasive ventilation at night (OR 0.19; 0.06-0.61).


Initiation of noninvasive ventilation when required and discontinuation of fludrocortisone treatment may reduce the high incidence rate of SUDS in patients with FD. Our findings contribute to the understanding of the link between autonomic, cardiovascular, and respiratory risk factors in SUDS.

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