Friday, October 12, 2007

Dismal Science

In honor of the now omnipresent Halloween season with it’s tap-dancing skeletons: How does it feel to die?

None of us can know the answers for sure until our own time comes, but the few individuals who have their brush with death interrupted by a last-minute reprieve can offer some intriguing insights. Advances in medical science, too, have led to a better understanding of what goes on as the body gives up the ghost.

Death comes in many guises, but one way or another it is usually a lack of oxygen to the brain that delivers the coup de grâce. Whether as a result of a heart attack, drowning or suffocation, for example, people ultimately die because their neurons are deprived of oxygen, leading to cessation of electrical activity in the brain - the modern definition of biological death. If the flow of freshly oxygenated blood to the brain is stopped, through whatever mechanism, people tend to have about 10 seconds before losing consciousness and several minutes to die.

It’s all here: Drowning, Heart Attack, Blood Loss, Fire, Electrocution, Decapitation, Falling, Hanging, and Explosive Decompression in the Vacuum of Space.

The "Hollywood Heart Attack", featuring sudden pain, desperate chest-clutching and immediate collapse, certainly happens in a few cases. But a typical "myocardial infarction", as medical-speak has it, is a lot less dramatic and comes on slowly, beginning with mild discomfort.

So if an old man is dramatically clutching his chest, blow him off because he's faking. Probably just wants attention because his children don't call.

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