Background: Since the early 1980s, case fatality of patients with ARDS has decreased, and explanations are unclear.
Design and methods: Using identical definitions of ARDS and organ failure, we analyzed consecutive cohorts of patients meeting syndrome criteria at our institution in 1982 (n = 46), 1990 (n = 112), 1994 (n = 99), and 1998 (n = 205) to determine causes and timing of death.
Results: Overall case fatality has decreased from 68% in 1981–1982 to a low of 29% in 1996, plateauing since the mid-1990s (p = 0.001 for trend). Sepsis syndrome with multiple organ failure remains the most common cause of death (30 to 50%), while respiratory failure causes a small percentage (13 to 19%) of deaths. The distribution of causes of death has not changed over time. There was no change in the timing of death during the study periods: 26 to 44% of deaths occurred early (< 72 h after ARDS onset), and 56 to 74% occurred late (> 72 h after ARDS onset). However, the increased survival over the past 2 decades is entirely accounted for by patients who present with trauma and other risk factors for their ARDS, while survival for those patients whose risk factor is sepsis has not changed. Additionally, withdrawal of life support in these patients is now occurring at our institution significantly more frequently than in the past, and median time until death has decreased in patients who have support withdrawn.
Conclusions: While these results do not explain the overall case fatality decline in ARDS, they do indicate that sepsis syndrome remains the leading cause of death and suggest that future therapies to improve survival be targeted at reducing the complications of sepsis.