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Epilepsy on the Rise

More older Americans are dealing with the seizure-causing disorder

Epilepsy Rising


Some seizures cause a person to fall, shake and lose awareness of surroundings. Others cause confusion and staring spells.

More people are dealing with a seizure-causing brain disorder, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The agency estimates 3.4 million people in the United States are living with epilepsy. 

The disorder — characterized by a tendency to have recurrent seizures — affects all age groups. New cases are most common in children and older adults because of higher risk factors, according to the CDC. 

Among adults, active cases of epilepsy rose from 2.3 million in 2010 to 3 million in 2015. The cases among children also increased from 450,000 in 2007 to 470,000 in 2015.

“Millions of Americans are impacted by epilepsy, and unfortunately, this study shows cases are on the rise,” said Brenda Fitzgerald, a physician and CDC director. The agency also pointed to population growth as a possible reason for the increase. 

While age breakdowns are not made available with every report, they were in 2010. A National Health Interview Survey found that of 275 people with active cases of epilepsy, 40 percent were over age 55.

Different conditions can cause epilepsy. These include stroke, brain tumor, head injury, central nervous system infections and genetic risks, according to the CDC.

Living with epilepsy can be manageable, though many adults with the disorder face challenges with everyday life. It can prevent you from keeping a driver's license, and you also could face work limitations.

“Epilepsy is common, complex to live with and costly. It can lead to early death if not appropriately treated,” said Rosemarie Kobau, head of the CDC’s epilepsy program.

Treatments for epilepsy vary. The most common are seizure medications,  or surgery when the seizure comes from a single area of the brain.

Although epilepsy is widely recognized by the public, analysts believe few people fully understand it and the 30 different types of seizures.

The CDC offers advice on ways to help someone having a seizure:

  • Ease the person to the floor.
  • Turn the person gently onto one side. This will help the person breathe.
  • Clear the area around the person of anything hard or sharp. This can prevent injury.
  • Put something soft and flat, like a folded jacket, under his or her head.
  • Remove eyeglasses.
  • Loosen ties or anything around the neck that may make it hard to breathe.
  • Time the seizure. Call 911 if the seizure lasts longer than five minutes.

The CDC also recommends calling 911 if: 

  • The person has never had a seizure before
  • The person has difficulty breathing or waking after the seizure
  • The person has another seizure soon after the first one
  • The person is hurt during the seizure
  • The seizure happens in water
  • The person has a health condition like diabetes or heart disease, or is pregnant

The Epilepsy Foundation has partnered with the CDC to support a free Seniors and Seizures training program. The session provides caregivers and the staff of adult centers with strategies to better recognize and respond to seizures in older adults. 

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