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Epilepsy in the Senior Population: More Common than You Might Think

separator Have you or an older loved one been experiencing unusual feelings, such as "spacing out," feeling confused, falling for no reason? Do you notice your loved one making mouth movements that look like he or she is tasting something? Have you noticed that at these times, your loved one seems to be picking at his or her clothing? Do you ever feel as though you can't account for time that's passed?

If you answer yes to any of these questions, it's possible that epilepsy is the cause. In other words, it's possible that you or your loved one are experiencing seizures.

The very word "epilepsy" might make you feel uncomfortable. That's a normal reaction, because years ago, epilepsy was not at all well understood—by the medical community or by the public. Most people thought of epilepsy as a condition that always began in childhood. People with epilepsy were often placed in institutions. It was considered shameful to have the condition or even to have a family member with the condition.

Today, we know so much more about epilepsy. It's a disorder that affects the brain's electrical activity. Nerve cells, or neurons, in the brain are responsible for all of the actions we perform—breathing, walking, sleeping, reaching for something, eating, etc. Electrical impulses travel from the neurons to the parts of the body that need to carry out a specific activity.

Epilepsy causes the neurons to become overloaded with electricity, which in turn leads them to send abnormal signals that result in seizures. Seizures vary from mild to severe and can cause convulsions, muscle spasms, strange sensations, odd behavior and loss of consciousness.

Two million Americans have epilepsy. There are a lot of possible causes. Illness, damage to the brain or abnormal brain development are three common ones.

According to the National Epilepsy Foundation, epilepsy affects about 500,000 seniors in the U.S. Seniors are the most rapidly growing population group with epilepsy. More people 65 or older develop epilepsy than any other age group. In fact, epilepsy is the third most common neurological disorder in the elderly population. Dementia is the first, and stroke is the second.

Seizures often different among seniors

When you hear the word "seizure," you might imagine a frightening event in which a person has total body convulsions and becomes stiff and rigid. You might imagine the tongue protruding from the mouth, salivation or other unpleasant symptoms.

Seizures are sometimes like this, but the majority of the time, seizures in the senior population are much less dramatic. In fact, if you're not trained to recognize seizures, you might not even be aware they're happening, whether you're the person having the seizure or whether you're observing someone else.

Many times, older people think that they're experiencing a symptom of another medical condition, or that they're having side effects from medication, when what's really happening is a seizure. Or you might think that the behavior exhibited during a seizure is part of normal aging-- a so called "senior moment.' That's why seizures are not as commonly diagnosed in the older population.

Seizures are grouped into categories. Older people are most likely to have what are called "simple partial" seizures or "complex partial" seizures.

During simple partial seizures:

  • Things that used to be familiar may suddenly seem unfamiliar
  • Your speech may be disturbed
  • You might tremble
  • You may feel anger or fear for no apparent reason
  • Your mood may suddenly change

During complex partial seizures, you might:

  • Smack your lips
  • Pick at your clothing
  • Be unable to respond to other people around you
  • Be unaware of danger
  • Have a sense of losing time

During simple partial seizures, you're fully conscious, although you're experiencing strange things. Complex partial seizures, on the other hand, produce a more dream-like state.

When most people hear the word "seizure," they think of the type that's called "tonic/clonic." These also used to be called "grand mal" seizures. These are more severe. They cause muscle spasms which make the body stiffen and shake. The person having these seizures loses consciousness. Breathing is shallow. These seizures usually last about two minutes. Then the body gradually relaxes, and the person regains consciousness.

What are the causes of epilepsy among seniors?

There can be several causes for epilepsy to develop in seniors:

  • Stroke is the leading cause, responsible for about a third of epilepsy cases. Often, the stroke was small and didn't cause other obvious symptoms. Sometimes, seizures may not occur until quite a while after the stroke—months or even a year or more.
  • Alzheimer's disease causes about 11 percent of seizures.
  • Tumors in the brain, either cancerous or non-cancerous, cause about 5 percent of cases.
  • Head injuries cause about 2 percent.
  • Infections cause about 1 percent.
  • For about half of all people—not just seniors, but people of all ages—the reason for the seizures is never discovered.

What should you do if you think you or a loved one are having seizures?

It's important to see your doctor if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of a seizure. That's the only way to find out exactly what's going on—whether you are in fact having seizures, or whether another condition is causing your symptoms.

If you are having seizures, your doctor may prescribe medication. (If this is the case, be sure your doctor knows about all other medications you take already, because epilepsy drugs may interact with other drugs.)

Your doctor can also give you advice about keeping your home safe. If you have seizures that cause you to fall down frequently, you'll need to make adjustments in the kitchen, the bathroom and really throughout the home.

You'll also need advice about what loved ones can do when you have a seizure, including what first aid is necessary, when it's time to call the doctor, etc.

In short, if it's possible that you or a loved one could be having seizures, you do need to talk with your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

To read more about epilepsy, click here.

The Epilepsy Foundation; The National Center for Neurological Disorders and Stroke; The Senior Citizens Guide
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