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What are the Causes & Symptoms of Seizures for the Elderly?

Article by Daniel Westhead Daniel Westhead Sure Safe Alarms
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Although scary, seizures are a relatively common condition, affecting people of all ages, genders and ethnicities. Epilepsy is the leading cause, with around 600,000 people suffering from the disorder in the UK – that's a staggering one in every hundred!

However, seizures aren't epilepsy-specific. Countless other ailments trigger the response, including brain infections, heart disease and high blood pressure. Plus, episodes manifest in wildly different ways. Some people only ever experience a one-off attack, whereas others must manage symptoms for their entire lives. These symtpoms can get worse for high-risk groups such as senior citizens.

Want to know more about the causes of seizures? Keep reading as we explain everything you need to know, including the reasons for seizures in the elderly and early warning signs.

What are seizures?

How do seizures happen? Basically, the brain is full of tiny nerve cells and neurons that communicate with each other via electrical currents. Episodes occur when normal activity is disrupted. Sudden, uncontrollable bursts of electricity influence a person's behaviours, movements, emotions and levels of consciousness.

There are many types of seizures, ranging in severity and symptoms, including tonic-clonic and complex partial. Most last between 30 seconds and two minutes – anything over five minutes is a medical emergency.

You can manage the worst symptoms with medication, diet and surgery. On top of this, you might want to invest in a personal safety alarm with fall detection to give you extra peace of mind. If you have a convulsion, the alarm will call for help straight away – either to your nominated contacts or our monitored response centre.

What are the causes of seizures for elderly people?

There's no single cause of seizures. Instead, anyone can experience them, even if they don't have a history of neurological disorders. However, it's important to note that two or more seizures at least 24 hours apart without a known cause is always categorised as epilepsy.

What causes seizures in elderly people and the general population? Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Epilepsy
  • Brain infection or trauma
  • Heart disease
  • Fever
  • High blood pressure
  • Some prescription medications
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Extreme stress

Epilepsy

As mentioned, epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures. It's particularly prevalent in the older population – one in four people over 65 will develop some form of the condition. However, children aren't immune. Childhood absence epilepsy is usually diagnosed between four and eight years old and can last well into adulthood.

Why do some people develop epilepsy? There's no clear-cut answer. Experts believe it's a melting pot of genetics, metabolic disorders, structural abnormalities in the brain, infections and head trauma. Everyone is different, and symptoms depend on the individual's unique circumstances.

Brain infection, trauma or tumour

Seizures begin and end with the brain, so it makes sense that any infection, trauma or tumour would interfere with normal processes. Diseases like meningitis and encephalitis are deadly if left untreated. The former inflames the lining around the brain and spinal cord, while the latter targets the brain itself.

Similarly, head trauma disproportionately increases the risk of attacks. This could include concussions from contact sports, car accidents and accidental falls. Worried about staying steady on your feet? The SureSafeGO 24/7 Connect automatically alerts an expert operator, family member or friend in an emergency.

Finally, seizures can be a red flag (albeit a rare one) for brain tumours. Cancer Research estimates up to 80% of people with a brain tumour also experience convulsions and fits.

Heart disease

Heart disease is a lesser-known reason for seizures and seizure-like symptoms. Hypertension, valve disease, dilated cardiomyopathy and hypertrophic cardiomyopathy trigger cardiac arrhythmias, otherwise known as an irregular heartbeat. This can cause convulsive syncope – a seizure-like episode where blood can't reach the brain.

Fever

Fever is perhaps the most common cause of seizures in children. Doctors will often refer to them as febrile seizures or febrile convulsions, and the NHS predicts around one in 20 young people will have an episode at some point in their lives. You'll be pleased to know they usually aren't serious. Risk factors include chickenpox, flu, inner ear infections and tonsillitis.

High blood pressure

Research suggests that high blood pressure or hypertension doubles the risk of developing epilepsy and seizures. Moreover, experts believe it might damage the small arteries in the brain, causing microscopic injuries that disrupt electrical signals. The good news is high blood pressure is pretty straightforward to treat with diet, exercise and medication.

Some prescription medications

Certain prescription drugs can increase the likelihood of seizures in people with epilepsy. In rare cases, they can even trigger first-time attacks. Although uncommon, it's something to keep in mind – always speak to your doctor if you're concerned about medication side effects. Culprits include some:

  • Antidepressants
  • Antihistamines
  • Sedatives
  • Opioid-based pain medication
  • Antibiotics used to treat treatment of tuberculosis

Drug or alcohol abuse

Unsurprisingly, illegal drugs and alcohol misuse have a devastating impact on the brain. Stimulants like amphetamines can cause severe tonic-clonic seizures, heart attacks and even death.

Alcohol (and it doesn't necessarily have to be an excessive amount) often leads to dehydration and insomnia – both of which limit the effectiveness of anti-epileptic medication and interrupt electrical activity in the brain. If you think alcohol might be triggering your seizures, keep a diary and speak to your doctor. Once you identify catalysts, episodes become easier to manage.

Extreme stress

Lastly, extreme stress, especially post-traumatic stress disorder, is a leading cause of non-epileptic seizures. However, they don't typically manifest how you'd expect.

Rather than convulsing, many individuals experience dissociative symptoms, where they lose awareness of their surroundings and reactions. During this time, they won't be conscious of what's happening, so you can't "shake them out of it".

Childhood absence epilepsy is also characterised by dissociative seizures. Many parents mistake symptoms for developmental delays or attention deficit disorders.

What happens when you have a seizure?

So, what does a seizure look like? As symptoms vary depending on the cause, it's impossible to say for sure. Everyone displays different signs. Some people disassociate and stare blankly into space. Others collapse and convulse – exactly how you'd imagine when you think of someone with epilepsy. Nevertheless, we've rounded up a few of the most common symptoms to watch out for, including:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • Violent convulsions
  • Uncontrollable tics
  • Emotional changes
  • Non-responsiveness

Loss of consciousness

Most people lose consciousness when they have a seizure. With dissociative seizures, people might be sitting or standing, apparently engaged from an outside perspective. However, most will stiffen and collapse, so it's crucial to spot the early warning signs and make appropriate adjustments.

If you anticipate a seizure, move to a safe place without sharp objects, remove loose clothing, lie down and call for help. We also recommend a safety pendant with 24/7 monitoring to provide reassurance that support is on hand any time, night or day.

Violent convulsions

After losing consciousness, a person will typically convulse. This is where muscles contract and relax quickly, causing unpredictable body movements. People might shake their limbs, stiffen involuntarily and bite their tongues. Sometimes, the chest muscles tighten and cause breathing difficulties. Try not to panic – this usually resolves itself once the episode has finished.

The best thing you can do is secure the environment and time the seizure. Don't try and intervene. Otherwise, you could get hurt. Remember, anything over five minutes requires immediate medical attention.

Uncontrollable tics

Tics are repetitive muscle movements that cause sudden jolts or sounds. They manifest as rapid eye movements, head nodding and involuntary grunting or moans. These can occur during a convulsion or just before, when the electrical activity in the brain ramps up.

Tics are a common symptom of myoclonic epilepsy, which is sometimes mistaken for clumsiness. Episodes are persistent but only last a few seconds. During this time, people trip, lose grip and forget conversations.

Emotional changes

Many seizure patients report emotional changes just before an episode, with extreme anxiety and depression topping the list. It's also common to feel irritable for a few days afterwards as the brain's activity returns to normal.

There's even a name for these sudden mood fluctuations – epileptic auras. You might experience butterflies and an eerie sense of déjà vu alongside visual disturbances like flashing lights and hallucinations.

Non-responsiveness

Non-responsiveness happens when a person suddenly stops all activity. They stare into space and won’t respond to their name or any other stimulation – this usually lasts between one to two minutes. People can be upset and confused afterwards, so be patient and comforting while they come around.

What does a seizure feel like?

Understandably, most people want to know whether seizures are painful. During an episode, a person won’t be aware of what’s happening, so they won’t be in pain at the time. However, there can be a great deal of discomfort afterwards, especially if someone has hit their head or bit their tongue. If you or a loved one feels unwell, call the doctor or hospital to get checked over.

Live confidently with a SureSafe Alarm

It’s completely possible to live independently and confidently with seizures, even if you are a senior citizen. A SureSafe Alarm can help make that possible with clever features, such as fall detection, GPS tracking and 24/7 monitoring. No matter where you are, someone will always be on hand to offer expert assistance.

Got any questions? Contact our professional, friendly team today on 0800 112 3201, request a call back or use our live chat.

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