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Retired Doctor Shares What Our Bodies Experience Just Before We Die

Death may not be as dramatic as movies often portray, according to Dr. Kathryn Mannix, a retired doctor with 30 years of experience in palliative care.

The Truth About Dying

Dr. Kathryn Mannix shared insights into the dying process during an interview on BBC Women’s Hour, where she also talked about her new short animation, “Dying for Beginners.” The film aims to ease people’s fears about death, suggesting that the final moments are not filled with terror but a state of unawareness.

What Really Happens?

Dr. Mannix explains that the first sign of the body approaching the end of life is a noticeable loss of energy, similar to an old mobile phone whose battery won’t hold a charge. 

Sleep becomes more vital than food or drink

Hunger at Life’s End

Interestingly, many dying individuals don’t feel much hunger, and that’s okay, according to Dr. Mannix. They’re not passing away due to a lack of eating; they’re not eating because their bodies are shutting down. 

The Need for Sleep Increases

Over time, people increasingly require more sleep, allowing them short bursts of energy to think and perform tasks. Eventually, they transition from sleeping to unconsciousness, unable to distinguish between the two states.

Understanding The ‘Death Rattle’

Dr. Mannix also discussed the phenomenon known as the ‘death rattle,’ which can be unsettling to hear. She described how reflex breathing patterns, controlled by the brain, alternate between periods of deep breathing that slowly becomes more shallow, before cycling back to deeper breaths.

This process includes shifts from slow to rapid breathing and back again. 

Is the Dying Person Struggling to Breathe?

For those witnessing this for the first time, it could seem like the individual is having difficulty breathing or is in some form of distress, especially when the breathing is quick yet shallow. 

This, however, is not true. 

Misconceptions About Dying

Dr. Mannix explains that what’s often portrayed in films—your life flashing before your eyes—is not accurate. She clarifies that the breathing patterns observed signify deep unconsciousness, and the individual is actually in a safe state. 

The Final Breath

Towards life’s end, there’s typically a phase of slow breathing, culminating in a final exhale without a subsequent inhale, contrary to dramatic Hollywood portrayals.

Alleviating Fear of Death

Dr. Mannix believes understanding these facts can make death seem less frightening, emphasizing her mission to alleviate fear surrounding it. 

She became a qualified cognitive behavior therapist in 1993 and later established the UK’s first CBT clinic dedicated to palliative care patients.

Understanding Death’s Pace

According to Cleveland Clinic, the duration before death varies greatly among individuals, influenced by health status, treatments, and cause of death. Rapid events like untreated sudden cardiac arrest can lead to death within minutes, whereas chronic conditions may result in a process that takes weeks or months.

Chronic Conditions and Death

Diseases such as heart disease, chronic lung disease, and cancer, which are major causes of death globally, often allow for treatments that can extend life and make the approach of death more gradual.

Sleep Over Activity

As an individual approaches the end of life, several significant changes occur, affecting both physical capabilities and psychological state. One of the most noticeable changes is an increased need for sleep coupled with a marked reduction in physical activity. 

Preparing for Rest

This shift is primarily due to diminished energy levels and the heart’s declining efficiency in pumping oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. 

Consequently, there’s less energy available for activities, necessitating more rest.

Changes in Appetite and Thirst

The body’s requirement for nourishment decreases, leading to reduced appetite and thirst. This reduction is partly because the digestive system is less able to process food, making eating and drinking less appealing and more difficult.

Loss of Control

Alongside these changes, there’s a loss of control over bowel and bladder functions, resulting in symptoms like incontinence and constipation. These conditions, while uncomfortable, can often be managed with various medical interventions designed to alleviate discomfort and maintain dignity.

Physical Decline in The Final Days

Physical decline is further evidenced by the breakdown of muscle and skin. Individuals may experience significant weight loss and muscle fatigue, making even simple movements or adjustments in bed challenging. 

More Fragile Skin 

The skin becomes thinner and more fragile, making it more susceptible to bruises, cuts, and bedsores, necessitating careful monitoring and care to prevent further injury.

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