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9 Famous People and Historical Figures with Epilepsy

Article by Daniel Westhead Daniel Westhead Sure Safe Alarms

If you’re an older person who’s been diagnosed with epilepsy, you’re not alone. In fact, nearly a quarter of people diagnosed with epilepsy are over 65 at the time of their diagnosis. According to the Lancet, the only neurological disorders more common than epilepsy in over-65s are dementia and strokes.

What’s more, there’s a host of famous people that have epilepsy, including celebrities from our era and famous figures from the past. In this article, we’ll list just a few of these big names you’ll know from headlines or from your history books – but who you might not have known became famous with epilepsy too.

What is epilepsy?

As we’ll be discussing different manifestations of epilepsy, we should first define what epilepsy is.

Epilepsy is a condition in which disorganised, sudden bursts or storms of electrical activity in the brain occur and cause negative effects. There are actually many different types of epilepsy relating to which parts of the brain are affected and what type of seizure has occurred.

The most well-known type of seizure is the tonic-clonic seizure, in which a person’s body goes stiff and then they fall to the floor and experience uncontrolled jerking movements. However, there are many other types of seizures. The most common type in older people is a complex partial seizure, which might just look like “spacing out” or “going blank.”

It's important to note, too, that epilepsy doesn’t just affect people during the minutes when they’re having a seizure. Confusion after a seizure can be a significant issue all its own, especially in the elderly. In fact, there’s a risk this prolonged confusion could be mistaken for dementia in an older person if no-one realises that subtle seizures are occurring.

Typically, epilepsy is diagnosed either in children or in older people. However, a person can have their first seizure at any age. Sometimes, epilepsy can occur in the middle of life due to damage to the brain, such as from accidents.

In other words, there’s a wide range of ways in which people can experience epilepsy. Famous people and their experiences can give us some insight into the diversity of epileptic symptoms and causes – as you’ll see in our list.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Russian author Dostoevsky offers a fascinating case of historical epilepsy because his seizures are so well documented by him and his doctor. It seems he experienced different types of seizures, including tonic-clonic seizures.

Dostoevsky also wrote about epilepsy in his fiction, creating numerous characters who experienced his own condition. While it’s difficult to say whether many other historical figures who are thought to be epileptic really were, Dostoevsky’s epilepsy seems well proven by his very accurate descriptions of epileptic seizures in his writing.

Heracles and “the sacred disease”

Did you know that epilepsy was once called “the sacred disease”?

It’s true! This is connected to the fact that the mythical demigod character Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) was said to have had epilepsy. In his myths, he was afflicted with bursts of senseless rage that were considered by some ancient Greeks to be examples of seizures.

Although it is possible for epilepsy to be connected with aggression, sometimes because of a person’s confusion during the time after a seizure, experts now feel that the ancient view of epilepsy as tied to aggressive behaviour creates an unfair negative stereotype.

Prince

From a mythical demigod to a real-life prince – the legendary musician Prince also had epilepsy. He explained that, like many people with epilepsy, he was diagnosed in childhood when he experienced seizures. However, his seizures eventually stopped on their own.

Hugo Weaving

We all know the actor Hugo Weaving from his roles in the Lord of the Rings films and The Matrix, among others. But did you know that he also had epilepsy?

Weaving explained that he was diagnosed with epilepsy as a young teen – but his seizures ended later in his life.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the American abolitionist, is famous for her role in helping enslaved people escape to the north via the Underground Railroad.

It’s known that a heavy blow to her head in her childhood caused her to experience sudden sleeping spells and visions throughout her life. Some people have diagnosed this condition as narcolepsy, while others describe it as epilepsy. While we can’t know for certain, it is true that head injuries can cause epilepsy.

Susan Boyle

The singer Susan Boyle shot to fame when she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” on the talent competition programme “Britain’s Got Talent.”

She later revealed that she had been diagnosed with epilepsy as a child and said that she often fainted at school.

Vladimir Lenin

The exact medical conditions afflicting Lenin at the end of his life are still disagreed upon. However, we do know that he experienced many serious seizures just before his death by stroke at age 54.

Lenin had no symptoms of epilepsy in the earlier part of his life. However, from the age of 52 onward, he had several earlier strokes. It’s known that epilepsy can be caused by stroke or other issues with the blood vessels of the brain. So, it’s possible that Lenin’s strokes caused him to develop epilepsy before he died of his final stroke.

Lil Wayne

The singer and rapper Lil Wayne is known for his success in the music industry. He’s also been epileptic since childhood and has struggled with seizures.

Some people with epilepsy experience “auras,” which are strange feelings or sensations that indicate that a seizure is coming. The warning from an aura helps an epileptic person to get to a safe position and prepare for the seizure.

However, Lil Wayne has said that he doesn’t feel any warning or aura before his epileptic seizures occur, which makes them more difficult for him to manage.

Neil Young

The musician Neil Young of the bands Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young has spoken about his experiences with epilepsy. In fact, he even wrote a song about an epileptic seizure – it’s called “Burned.”

Young said that he had his first epileptic seizure in his youth but, like others on this list, stopped having seizures as he grew older. He had also mentioned that he did experience auras that allowed him to sense when a seizure was coming.

Learning more about epilepsy

As you can see from this brief glimpse into the many past and present famous figures who have or might have had epilepsy, the condition comes in many different forms and has many different effects. Some people are diagnosed in childhood, while others are older when they have their first seizure. Some people find that their seizures come to an end on their own as they age, while others still struggle with them.

Epilepsy offers different levels of disruption to different people’s lives, too. Dostoevsky actually enjoyed some elements of his epilepsy, describing that he experienced feelings of intense happiness related to his seizures. Of course, not everyone is so lucky in their symptoms of epilepsy. Famous people may even find that their busy and stressful schedules make them more vulnerable to seizures.

For older people who experience epileptic seizures, the condition may not be as pleasant as Dostoevsky found it. Prolonged confusion after a seizure can feel strange and difficult, and falling during a seizure can be risky. But personal alarms for seniors with epilepsy can help provide peace of mind.

A one-touch personal alarm with a talking pendant function can be great for seniors who are confused and distressed after a seizure and unable to dial a phone. All they need to do is press one simple button, and they can speak right through their pendant to someone who can offer help and comfort – whether that’s a family member or our 24/7 expert response centre.

An automatic fall detection alarm can also provide reassurance for seniors who experience tonic-clonic seizures or any other type of seizure that might leave them disoriented and at risk of a fall. Either way, no matter what causes the older person to fall to the ground, the alarm will detect the fall and call for help all on its own, without the need for any input from the wearer.

Keeping safe when you’re an older person with epilepsy

If you’re considering a personal alarm for the elderly, SureSafe is a name you can trust. A market leader in personal alarms for the elderly, we have 4.8 stars on review.io and a wide selection of affordable, easy-to-use personal alarms designed specifically for seniors’ needs.

Curious to know more about how a personal alarm can provide peace of mind for you or an older loved one with epilepsy? We’ll be happy to chat more about what might be the best option for you. Just call us on 0800 112 3201, reach out via our live chat, or request a call back.

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