Eastern Mediterranean Health Journal | Past issues | Volume 17, 2011 | Volume 17, issue 9 | Incidence and causes of sudden death in a university hospital in eastern Saudi Arabia

Incidence and causes of sudden death in a university hospital in eastern Saudi Arabia


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Research article

H.K. Nofal,1 M.F. Abdulmohsen 2 and A.H.Khamis 3

معدل وقوع الوفاة الفجائية وأسبابها في المستشفى الجامعي في شرق المملكة العربية السعودية

حسين كامل نوفل، محمد فخري عبد المحسن، عمَّار حسن خميس

الخلاصـة: الوفاة الفجائية هي وفاة غير متوقعة، وغيرُ ناجمة عن عنف، تحدث في أقل من 24 ساعة من بدء ظهور الأعراض. وفي هذه الدراسة الاستِعادية سجل الباحثون تواتـٌر الوفاة الفجائية وأسبابها الرئيسية وعلاقتها بإجمالي الوفيات في مستشفى جامعي كبير في شرق المملكة العربية السعودية على مدى فترة امتدت أكثر من ست سنوات. وقد أُجْرِى استقصاء استِعادي للملفات الطبية لـ 1273 وفاة متعاقبة، وتبين أن 223 وفاة (%17.5) منها كانت وفاة فجائية. وشكل الذكور نسبة %56.0 من الحالات. وكان معدل وقوع الوفاة الفجائية أعلى ما يكون في أقصى طرفَيْ العمر (%32.2 في الرضّع، و %31.4 في المسنين). وكان هناك تباين موسمي، وكان أعلى معدل للوقوع (%29.6) في موسم الربيع، يليه الصيف (%25.1). وتمثَّلت أهم الأسباب المباشرة للوفاة الفجائية في الأمراض القلبية الوعائية %59.2، والمرض التنفسي %24.7، والسكري %23.8، والمرض الكبدي %23.3، والأمراض الـمُعْدِيَة %20.2.

ABSTRACT Sudden death is non-violent, unexpected death occurring less than 24 hours from the onset of symptoms. In this retrospective descriptive study we report the frequency and main causes of sudden deaths in relation to total deaths at a large university hospital in the Eastern region of Saudi Arabia over a 6-year period. The medical files of 1273 consecutive deaths were retrospectively investigated and showed 223 (17.5%) cases of sudden death. Males were 56.0% of cases. The incidence of sudden death was highest in the 2 age extremes (32.2% were infants and 31.4% were elderly). There was a seasonal variation, with the highest incidence (29.6%) during spring followed by summer (25.1%). The most important direct causes of sudden death were cardiovascular diseases in 59.2% of cases, respiratory disease in 24.7%, diabetes mellitus in 23.8%, liver disease in 23.3% and infectious disease in 20.2%.

Incidence et causes de mort subite dans un hôpital universitaire de l’est de l’Arabie saoudite

RÉSUMÉ La mort subite correspond à un décès non violent et inattendu survenant moins de 24 heures après l’apparition de symptômes. Dans la présente étude descriptive rétrospective, nous avons examiné la fréquence et les causes principales des morts subites par rapport au nombre total des décès dans un grand hôpital universitaire de la région orientale de l’Arabie saoudite, sur une période de six ans. Les dossiers médicaux de 1273 patients dont les décès ont été consécutifs, ont été étudiés rétrospectivement. Parmi ceux-ci, 223 (17,5 %) étaient des cas de mort subite. Les hommes représentaient 56,0 % des cas. L’incidence des morts subites était maximale dans les deux tranches d’âge extrême (32,2 % étaient des nourrissons et 31,4 % des personnes âgées). Une variation saisonnière a pu être observée, avec une incidence maximale (29,6 %) au printemps, puis en été (25,1 %). Les principales causes directes étaient les maladies cardio-vasculaires pour 59,2 % des cas, les affections respiratoires pour 24,7 %, le diabète sucré pour 23,8 %, les affections hépatiques pour 23,3 % et les maladies infectieuses pour 20,2 %.

1Department of Pathology/Forensic Medicine; 2Department of Internal Medicine; 3Department of Family and Community Medicine, College of Medicine, King Faisal University, Dammam, Saudi Arabia (Correspondence to M.F. Abdulmohsen: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )

Received: 04/08/09; accepted: 03/12/09

EMHJ, 2011, 17(9): 665-670


Despite tremendous technological advances in health care the phenomenon of sudden death is still a concern. The diagnosis and definition of sudden death are variable, but the generally recognized definition is based on the length of time between the onset of symptoms and death [1,2]. The World Health Organization (WHO) definition of sudden death according to the International classification of diseases, version 10 (ICD-10) is death, non-violent and not otherwise explained, occurring less than 24 hours from the onset of symptoms [2]. Cases of sudden death have been described in studies in a number of countries [3–9]. Sudden death occurs in all age groups: in infants (where it is called sudden infant death syndrome), in children and youths, in adults and in the elderly [9–16]. The risk factors for sudden death include: older age, low and high body mass index, arterial hypertension, diabetes mellitus, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, unhealthy diet and stress [17–19]. There are also seasonal variations in sudden death, with the highest frequency reported in winter, followed by autumn, spring and summer [20].

The nature of sudden death means that an accurate diagnosis is difficult to achieve without an autopsy [1,2,21]. In Saudi Arabia, however, postmortems are extremely limited for religious and cultural reasons regulations. Postmortems are performed in only a few centres around the country and only if there are medico-legal issues surrounding the death, such as a violent cause of death. Otherwise, routine postmortems are not carried out for religious and cultural reasons. Lack of postmortem can sometimes make the diagnosis of the cause of sudden death a difficult task. Unfortunately, there have been no epidemiological or even hospital-based studies about the incidence, mode and causes of sudden death in Saudi Arabia. Among the few reports of sudden death found during the literature search, one concerned 51 cases of “unexplained sudden death syndrome” reported to the medicolegal centre in Dammam, Saudi Arabia [22], another was about a Saudi family with 2 members having a rare congenital disorder [23] and in a third study the investigators tried to elucidate the role of inflammatory mediators in sudden deaths in adults and older children [24]. It was our aim therefore to conduct a cross-sectional hospital-based study of the incidence and main underlying causes of sudden death in a large university hospital located in the Eastern region of Saudi Arabia.


A retrospective analytical clinical study was undertaken of sudden deaths in all age groups at King Fahd Hospital of the University, Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Permission to conduct the study was received from the research committees of both the College of Medicine, King Faisal University and King Fahd Hospital of the University, Al Khobar.

We retrospectively investigated all 1273 deaths that occurred between 1 January 2000 and 31 December 2005. Deaths were classified as sudden deaths when the patient died unexpectedly from non-violent causes within 24 hours from the onset of the symptoms of their final clinical presentation; the remainder were classified as expected deaths. In all cases of sudden death, personal information, history of pre-existing diseases, chief complaint(s) on presentation, clinical signs, medical investigations performed, diagnosis of death and time elapsed between the onset of prodromal symptoms and the onset of death were obtained from the medical records.

Individuals who arrived dead at the hospital were excluded from the study.

We stratified the incidence of sudden death in relation to all-cause deaths. We also tried to establish if there was any association of sudden and expected deaths with age group, sex, nationality, season and direct cause of death.

Data were entered into a computer using SPSS for Windows, version 13.0. The results were cross-tabulated to examine the relationships between the variables.

Statistical analysis was performed using the chi-squared test of association and Fisher exact test, as appropriate. Where multiple variables were examined, logistic regression analysis was used. Frequency tables were performed as descriptive statistics. A P-value < 0.05 was considered significant in all statistical analyses


Out of the 1273 deaths there were 223 cases of sudden death and 1050 cases of expected death during the 6-year study period. The incidence of sudden death as a proportion of all-cause deaths was therefore 17.5% compared with 82.5% for expected deaths. Sudden death occurred to 125 males (56.0%), 94 females (42.2%) and 4 cases of unrecorded sex (1.8%). Out of 223 cases, there were 166 Saudis (74.4%) and 57 (25.6%) non-Saudis. The great majority were Muslims (97.5%).

Table 1 illustrates the age distribution of sudden deaths in this study: 21.4% were newborns, 3.6% neonates, 6.7% infants and 5.3% aged 1–18 years. Young adults (aged 18–39 years) were 9.9% of cases, the middle aged (40–60 years) were 21.0%, while the elderly (> 60 years) were 31.4%.

The most frequent prior medical problems affecting the cases of sudden death in this study were: type 2 diabetes mellitus (21.5%), hypertension (18.8%) and cardiovascular disease (CVD) including stroke (15.2%) (Table 2).

Table 3 shows the most frequent major prodromal symptoms preceding sudden death in the current study. These were: dyspnoea (shortness of breath) (25.1% of cases), fever (11.7%) and prematurity (10.8%).

Table 4 shows the direct causes of sudden death: 59.2% of cases were attributed to cardiovascular disease, 24.7% respiratory disease, 23.8% diabetes mellitus, 23.3% liver disease and 20.0% infectious disease.

The mode of sudden death included cardiopulmonary arrest in the great majority of cases 190 (85.2%) and respiratory arrest in 33 cases (14.8%).

Figure 1 illustrates the seasonal variation of sudden and expected deaths in our patients. The highest frequency of sudden death occurred during the spring (April–June) (29.6%), followed by summer (July–September) (25.1%), as compared (10.6%) and (18.3%) respectively for expected deaths. The lowest frequency of sudden death occurred during autumn (October–December) and winter (January–March) with frequencies of 22.5% and 22.9%, as compared with 36.8% and 34.4% for expected deaths (chi-squared P < 0.001).



Sudden unexpected death is a major public health problem in our region as other parts of the world. It affected 17.5% of the total cases of death in this university hospital in Eastern region, Saudi Arabia. This finding contrasts with the findings of Krahn et al., in Canada, who reported an incidence of 41% [25] and Goraya et al., who reported sudden cardiac death occurring in 61% of all cases of death due to coronary heart disease in the United States [26]. Nonetheless, another analysis of national and State-specific sudden cardiac death data in the US found that 63.4% of all cardiac death cases were sudden cardiac death [27].

In our study a higher proportion of sudden deaths were male than female (56.0% versus 42.2%) and this is consistent with international experience [3,18,26–31]. Sudden deaths occurred in all age groups but the highest proportion were elderly patients above the age of 60 years (31.4%), followed by infants (31.2%) and the middle aged (21.0%); the 1–18 years age group were a much lower proportion (5.3%). This age distribution of sudden death was also consistent with studies from other countries [11,18,32].

There were a seasonal variation in natural sudden death among our cases with the highest frequency during spring (29.6%), followed by summer (25.1%), then autumn and winter (22.8% each). This contrasts with the findings of Katz et al. in the Negev Desert region of Israel who found the highest rate in winter (31%) and autumn (25%) [20]. This might be explained by the difference between the cooler weather of the Mediterranean region and the very hot, windy and dusty weather during the spring and summer months in the Gulf region including eastern Saudi Arabia, which may exacerbate cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

In agreement with other researchers, the most frequent past medical problem was CVD, including coronary heart disease, hypertension and stroke (34% of cases) [17,18,26,27,30–35].

The most frequent prodromal symptoms in our study were: dyspnoea, fever, prematurity, circulatory collapse, angina and cough. These prodromal symptoms of sudden death in our study are to some extent different from the findings of other authors who found syncope [13], and congenital anomalies and low birth weight [15] were the main prodromal symptoms of sudden death. These differences may be related to the differences in the study population. However, dyspnoea represents a cardinal symptom of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, which were the 2 main causes of sudden death, affecting 83.9% of our cases.

Our study also showed that the most important single direct cause of sudden death was CVD (59.2%) and this is consistent with findings reported from developed countries [3,17–19,26,27,30,31,34,35]. Respiratory disease, especially bronchial asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and pneumonia, diabetes mellitus, liver disease, infectious disease, renal disease (especially end-stage renal disease), congenital anomaly, cancer and prematurity were also important direct causes of sudden death in the current study.


We found the incidence of sudden death was highest among the 2 age extremes, and also in hot, dusty and humid weather (late spring and early summer months). The most important prodromal symptoms prior to death were dyspnea, fever, low birth weight/prematurity, circulatory collapse and angina. Therefore, we recommend the health care providers especially emergency physicians to pay attention to patients presenting with these prodromal symptoms, particularly infants and elderly patients.


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