Epilepsy is a neurological condition caused by sudden brief changes in the brain’s electrical balance. When there are excess electrical discharges in the brain, seizures occur. Seizures can alter awareness, physical movements, consciousness or actions. Seizures generally last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Epilepsy is often called a “seizure disorder.” Both terms are used to describe recurring seizures.
Epilepsy is not a disease, mental illness or a sign of low intelligence. It is not contagious. Epilepsy is generally a chronic and/or lifelong condition.
A person could have a seizure at any time during his or her life. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 10 people will have a seizure during his or her life time. Approximately 1 to 2 percent of the population has epilepsy/seizure disorders. About one-third of the 186,000 cases diagnosed each year occur in childhood. However, senior citizens are increasingly diagnosed with epilepsy/seizure disorders.
The most common treatment for epilepsy/seizure disorders is anti-epileptic medications. Many people with epilepsy are able to control their seizures with medications. However, the side effects of medications can be severe, and some people with epilepsy do not respond well to medications and have little or no control of seizures. In some individuals, surgery can also be used to treat epilepsy/seizures disorders.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Epilepsy affects 65 million people worldwide. The Institute of Medicine, in their recent report “Epilepsy Across the Spectrum,” says “the 2.2 million prevalence estimate is most accurately viewed as approximating a midpoint in a wide potential range of 1.3 million to 2.8 million people with epilepsy.”
While medications and other epilepsy treatments help many people of all ages who live with epilepsy, more than a million people continue to have seizures that can severely limit their school achievements, employment prospects and participation in all of life’s experiences. It strikes most often among the very young and the very old, although anyone can develop epilepsy at any age. In the U.S., it affects more than 300,000 children under the age of 15–more than 90,000 of whom have seizures that cannot be adequately treated.
The number of epilepsy cases in the elderly is climbing as the baby boom generation reaches retirement age. More than 570,000 adults age 65 and above have the condition. Our returning veterans are also affected as studies show an increased risk of developing epilepsy following traumatic brain injury.
Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the U.S. after migraine, stroke, and Alzheimer’s disease. Its prevalence is greater than autism spectrum disorder, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease combined. Despite how common it is and major advances in diagnosis and treatment, epilepsy is among the least understood of major chronic medical conditions, even though one in three adults knows someone with the disorder.