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Understanding death and dying


A nurse looking after a man What happens when someone starts to die, and how end of life care is provided.

How we die is a profoundly personal journey. This section aims to help you understand what may happen as death approaches, the practical things you may need to think about when caring for a dying person, and how a death can affect family relationships.

Around 500,000 people die each year in the UK. Two-thirds are aged 75 and over. 

The five leading causes of death for men: 

  • Heart diseases: 16.1% of deaths
  • Lung cancer: 7.2%
  • Stroke: 6.1%
  • Chronic respiratory diseases (such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease): 5.8%
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: 5.1%

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The five leading causes of death for women

  • Heart diseases: 10.7% of deaths
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease: 10.3%
  • Stroke: 8.7%
  • Flu and pneumonia: 6.0%
  • Lung cancer: 5.3%

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End of Life Care 

The goal of care for people who are dying focuses on helping them enjoy as good a quality of life as possible. This may include relieving suffering; helping people stay as well as they can; and helping them achieve goals that are important to them before they die. This care is often provided by a mix of professionals, including those skilled in palliative care. These professionals will want to ensure that everyone affected by a terminal condition (including families and carers) knows about the choices they have and what support is available to them at this difficult time.

Liverpool Care Pathway

Currently, as death nears, patients are commonly placed on the Liverpool Care Pathway, a system which offers guidance for the care of someone in the last days or hours of life. However, in July 2013, following an independent review, it was announced that the pathway would be phased out over the next six to 12 months and replaced by individualised end-of-life care plans for every patient nearing the end of life. Interim guidance on end of life care for doctors and nurses has been issued by NHS England - view the guidanceWe will update this section as more information becomes available.  

The Dying Process

A lady with man in hospitalThe links below lead to information explaining the physical changes that happen when someone nears the end of life, and provide practical support and help to relatives and friends. Many dying people say they feel excluded from important conversations about what may happen to them as they begin to die. It is hoped that this information will be of help and support to them too.

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