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New research shows death isn’t ‘like flipping a switch’

Published Feb 1st, 2021 9:50PM EST
what is death
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  • Scientists studying the nuances of human death have struggled with defining when death actually happens and when a person has crossed the threshold, making death an inevitability.
  • New research reveals that end-of-life care, which is often a stressful topic for family and medical staff when a person is reaching their end, has a good handle on when death is indeed imminent. 
  • In a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, hundreds of individuals were observed during their final moments, and the data shows that doctors are almost always right.

We all go about our everyday lives knowing that someday (hopefully far, far down the road), our time on this Earth will end. Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, death is an inevitability that nobody can escape, at least not yet. Despite that, medical researchers still struggle to define death in some instances, and as a person’s body shuts down, it can be hard to know when a person’s loved ones should accept that the person is gone, even if their heart is still beating.

Life support has been a miracle for some, giving family members a chance to say goodbye, and allowing for the passing of a loved one to happen at a somewhat slower pace. However, researchers wanted to know just how accurate doctors and medical staff are when they believe that removing a person from life support will indeed cause their body to cease functioning. As it turns out, they’re very, very good at it.

As Vice reports, a new paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine focused on the end-of-life care of 631 individuals. The patients were all in intensive care units and on life support. The question, of course, is whether or not taking a person off of life support will indeed end their life. If not, and a person’s heart continues to beat even after they are removed from life support, there will always be a question as to whether that person could have recovered.

The good news here is that medical staff are incredibly good at their jobs. When the patients were eventually taken off of life support, Almost all of them immediately passed away, suggesting that the doctors and nurses responsible for making these decisions are highly skilled. In just 1% of patients (5 individuals in total) some cardiac or respiratory activity was observed in the moments following the discontinuation of life support, and in 14% of individuals, cardiac activity resumed for a brief time following pulselessness. The longest time gap between pulselessness and the resumption of cardiac activity was just over four minutes.

Doctors and end-of-life care staff typically allow for a significant amount of time to pass before declaring a person deceased. The standard is typically five minutes, and that allowance of time was adequate for all of the 631 people observed for this study.

So, doctors and medical staff know what they’re doing, but understanding what death really is, and when the transition between life and death happens, is still somewhat of a mystery. As physician and assistant professor Joanna Lee Hart told Vice, the goal is to “understand how to medically define death, which is more of a continuum than the flipping of a switch.”

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