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Epilepsy in the Elderly: Understanding the Facts

Article by Daniel Westhead Daniel Westhead Sure Safe Alarms

It can be scary when an elderly loved one suffers from epilepsy. But understanding facts about the disorder can provide some much-needed reassurance and help you care for them better. Keep reading for more information on epilepsy facts, including how common it is, the types of seizure and what you can do to help.

Epilepsy: the facts

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder caused by excessive electrical discharges to the brain. This intense nerve overstimulation doesn’t allow the brain to maintain control, leading to seizures.

Epilepsy affects around 50 million people worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation. And up to 10% of the world’s population will suffer one seizure in their lifetime. However, to be diagnosed with epilepsy a person would needed to have had two seizures or more.

Here are two more key facts we’ll be elaborating on in this article:

  • There are eight types of epileptic seizure
  • One in four people diagnosed with epilepsy is over 65

Facts about the different types of seizure

Another of the most common facts about epilepsy relates to the different kinds of seizure. In short, there are 8 types of seizure, which can be either focal or generalised…

Focal seizures

Firstly, there are epileptic focal seizures or ‘auras’, which only affect part of the brain. As such, a person could be aware that a seizure is happening. These are broken down into:

  • Focal awareness seizures (FAS): For a person who remains conscious, they may experience a change in their five senses – strange smells, an involuntary body jerk, or tingling in their limbs. Moreover, it is possible to have deja vu or sudden changes in emotions.
  • Focal impaired awareness seizure (FIAS): If someone has an impaired awareness seizure, it affects a larger part of the brain and can cause temporary loss of consciousness. The person may be able to hear you but not understand what you’re saying or be able to verbally respond.

It’s important to note that focal seizures may be a warning sign for an onset of a generalised seizure.

Generalised seizures

On the other hand, there are generalised seizures, which affect the whole brain. There are six types of generalised seizures:

  • Absence seizures: Absence seizures can happen without others realising, as they follow a pattern of staring vacantly without losing muscle control and falling to the floor. A person may experience eyelid flutters and small movements of the hands, such as finger rubbing, but not always. These types of seizures can last anywhere from 5-10 seconds and can occur frequently throughout the day, often in clusters. They are most common in children between the ages of 4-14.
  • Tonic seizures: More frequent while lying in bed at night, tonic seizures cause stiffness of the muscles that can last around 20 seconds. However, if they occur during the day a person is likely to fall to the floor and can experience tiredness or confusion once it passes.
  • Atonic seizures: The opposite of a tonic seizure, atonic seizures cause the muscles to go limp and lose strength. This will result in a person's eyes and head drooping, dropping what they are holding, and falling to the floor if standing. Atonic seizures are more common in children.
  • Clonic seizures: Defined usually recognised by fast body jerks and movements, clonic seizures can be a little hard to distinguish from myoclonic seizures. They are generally uninterrupted and regular, affecting both sides of the body. Clonic seizures cannot be stopped by trying to restrain or hold down a person.
  • Myoclonic seizures: Characterised by brief jerks and shocks of the body, switching between the tensing and relaxing of muscles, myoclonic seizures are not seen as too serious on their own. However, for someone with epilepsy, they often happen every day and are commonly coupled with atonic seizures. Myoclonic seizures tend to happen more frequently as a teenager and gradually decrease into adulthood.
  • Tonic-clonic seizures: These are the most intense and severe form of seizure. During the ‘tonic’ phase of the seizure, the body can seize up and fall to the floor. After this, the ‘clonic’ phase starts with the rapid jerking of the body. A person may also bite their tongue or lose control of their bladder. A tonic-clonic seizure should last 1-3 minutes. However, if these last longer than 5 minutes make sure to call 999.

How common is epilepsy for the elderly?

In terms of how many people have epilepsy, one in four people newly diagnosed with epilepsy is over the age of 65. However, an elderly person is more likely to develop focal seizures as opposed to generalised seizures.

Ultimately anyone can develop epilepsy at any point. It is no more prevalent in a specific gender, race, or age. However, if an elderly person suffers from epilepsy and has a fall it can have a long-lasting impact on their future mobility and quality of life.

This is the same for epileptic focal seizures (FAS/FIAS). Although developing this type of epilepsy is more likely in those who have had a head injury, or brain infection such as a stroke, the causes are primarily unknown.

How can epilepsy affect the elderly?

Now we’ve established the facts about epilepsy, it’s worth looking at how it affects elderly people’s lives. As with FAS/FIAS, epilepsy in the elderly can be triggered by a stroke, brain tumour, or a condition such as dementia. Other life factors such as smoking, drinking, or depression can also play a part in developing epilepsy later in life. Regardless of whether an elderly person starts to experience epileptic seizures in their old age, or has had epilepsy their whole life, it can be scary to deal with.

It may be difficult for someone to manage epilepsy medication while also taking medicine for other health conditions. A common side effect of medicine involves dizziness or drowsiness, increasing the likelihood of a fall while having an epileptic fit. Some epilepsy medication may also decrease bone density, also known as osteoporosis, so make sure to speak to a GP about keeping bones healthy.

It’s also important to note that if someone has a series of seizures there are some driving regulations to follow. The person must tell the DVLA if they have had a seizure and stop driving straight away. They also need to be free of seizures for a year to be able to start driving again. However, a person can apply for a free bus pass once they reach the state pension age in England and Wales and will automatically qualify for a free bus pass in Northern Ireland and Scotland once they reach the age of 60.

What to do if an elderly person has an epileptic seizure

As with anyone who is experiencing an epileptic seizure, there are several steps to take if you see an elderly person seizing:

  • Stay with them until the seizure has passed and they are fully awake.
  • Check they are unharmed and help them to sit up or move to sit in a safe place.
  • Give them comfort and speak calmly, telling them clearly what has happened once they are alert and no longer disorientated.
  • Make sure they have a safe way to get back home. If you are a passer-by, call them a taxi or offer to call a loved one.

Feel safe with a SureSafe alarm

If you’re concerned about an elderly friend or relative with epilepsy, SureSafe can help. With our personal alarms, an older person with epilepsy can feel comfortable living or completing errands independently. Our alarms have a fall detection sensor and SOS button which is especially important for those who suffer from epilepsy that causes temporary muscle failure, resulting in a fall.

To discuss our alarms in more detail, have a chat with our friendly, professional team today on 0800 112 3201. You can also use our live chat or request a call back. Facts aside, we’ll help you keep your loved ones safe both inside and outside the home and give them the best opportunity at living a fulfilling life for longer.

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