Epilepsy Facts: Diseases of the World

This neurological disorder affects 65 million people worldwide today, and if left untreated can result in death.



Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes recurring violent seizures among those inflicted. According to the Epilepsy Foundation, before an epileptic seizure a victim will often experience panic, a loss or blurring of vision, strange sensations, emotional dazes, racing thoughts, and other unpleasant feelings. When an attack occurs, it is characterized by convulsions, loss of control of urine or stool, sweating, pupil dilation, tongue biting due to teeth clenching, muscle spasms, hallucinations, memory lapses, unusual smells, and loss of consciousness. After an epileptic seizure, a person will generally be dazed, slow to respond, have nausea, and be thirsty, sleepy, embarrassed, and fatigued. The convulsions may lead to bodily injuries as well.


Possible causes of epilepsy include brain or head injuries, as well as genetic or acquired abnormal brain development or illnesses. According tot he UK’s Epilepsy Society, meningitis, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and tumors cause a type of the disorder called symptomatic epilepsy. There is also idiopathic epilepsy, which is passed on through genetic inheritance. Epileptic attacks also depend on each person’s genetic seizure threshold. People with low seizure thresholds are more susceptible to epileptic attacks, as their brains have lower resistance to them. Brain damage from severe injury or infection also lowers a normal person’s seizure threshold, making them prone to epilepsy. Cryptogenic epilepsy refers to when no particular cause of a person's epilepsy can be determined.


Among epileptics, sudden unexpected death is the most common disease-related cause of death. People suffering from epilepsy are 1.6 to 3 times more likely to die than normal people, according to a report by the Epilepsy Foundation. For children with epilepsy, their mortality risk is higher compared to those children without it as well. People with cryptogenic epilepsy are likely to die 2 years earlier than anticipated on average. Those whose causes of epileptic attacks are known can die 10 years earlier than what would be anticipated from the norms where they live. Injuries, such as those from falls, associated with epileptic attacks can cause, or result in, conditions leading to death.


Worldwide, epilepsy affects over 65 million people according to the Epilepsy Foundation. It accounts for 0.75 percent of the global disease burden, in terms of quality life years lost. Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological condition, and more frequent among men than women. One in one hundred people in the US have been diagnosed with some form of epilepsy, or have otherwise experienced an unprovoked seizure. The disorder affects people of all ages, but it is most common at the two ends of the age spectrum globally, disproportionately affecting young children and the elderly. Annually, 48 out of every 100,000 people develop epilepsy. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 80 percent of epileptics live in low- and middle-income countries.


Epileptic seizures can be controlled using anti-epileptic drugs (AEDs), though at the present they cannot be cured. Such drugs, according to the UK’s Epilepsy Society, have controlled seizures for up to 70 percent of the people using them. The AEDs function by reducing excessive electrical activity within the brain, which is the cause of seizures. For children unresponsive to AEDs, medical experts recommend a ketogenic diet. Such diets are high in fat, low in carbohydrates, and provide controlled levels of protein, and are planned according to a qualified dietician’s plan. Vagus nerve stimulation is another treatment for epilepsy, wherein mild electrical simulations are sent to the vagus nerve, in efforts to reduce the frequency, duration, and the negative outcomes of seizures. Brain surgery and deep brain simulation are other treatment forms currently available.


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