Epilepsy is widespread in America, according to CDC

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published August 14, 2017

Key Takeaways

More adults and children in the US have epilepsy than ever before, according to data published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. This report, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is the first time epilepsy estimates have been available for every state, and shows that at least 3.4 million people in this country are living with this disorder.

The report is based on the 2015 National Health Interview Survey, the National Survey of Children’s Health, and the 2014 Current Population Survey. It provides updated national estimates and the first modeled estimates of active epilepsy cases for all states.

The data show that about 3 million US adults and 470,000 children had active epilepsy in 2015, meaning that they are being treated for epilepsy or have had a recent seizure. Further, the number of adults with active epilepsy rose from 2.3 million in 2010 to 3 million in 2015; and the number of children increased from 450,000 in 2007 to 470,000 in 2015. The estimated increase in the incidence of epilepsy could not be explained by age or income, as these were controlled for in the study. Rather, the increase is most likely due to population growth over the past decades, and other unknown factors, according to these researchers.

“Millions of Americans are impacted by epilepsy, and unfortunately, this study shows cases are on the rise,” said CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, MD. “Proper diagnosis is key to finding an effective treatment – and at CDC we are committed to researching, testing, and sharing strategies that will improve the lives of people with epilepsy.”

This CDC study also provides national and state-specific estimates of the prevalence of epilepsy. The number of prevalent cases of active epilepsy by state generally mirror population distribution within the state:

  • The number of active epilepsy cases among adults ranged from 5,100 in Wyoming, to 367,900 in California.
  • The number of active epilepsy cases among children ranged from 800 in Wyoming to 59,800 in California.
  • In all, 11 states had over an estimated 92,000 people with epilepsy.

Epilepsy confers far reaching effects on affected individuals, and can include limitations at work, difficulty finding transportation, and difficulty affording medical care. Children with epilepsy are more likely to fall behind in school compared to their unaffected peers, and are also more likely to need special education services. In addition, children with epilepsy are more likely to live in low-income households.

In light of the increased incidence of epilepsy in the United States, health care providers must familiarize themselves with the classification of seizures as well as what comprises appropriate treatment or timely referral to a neurologist.

“Epilepsy is common, complex to live with, and costly. It can lead to early death if not appropriately treated,” said Rosemarie Kobau, MPH, head of CDC’s Epilepsy Program. “Everyone should know how to recognize a seizure and how to give appropriate first aid.”

At least 30 different types of seizures are possible, and it is possible for individuals to experience more than one type of seizure. Seizures are classified into two groups. The first is generalized seizures, which affect both sides of the brain. These consist of absence seizures (petit mal seizures), which may cause rapid blinking or a few seconds of staring; and tonic-clonic seizures (grand mal seizures), which can make a person cry out, lose consciousness, fall, have muscle spasms or jerks.

The second group of seizures are focal seizures, also known as partial seizures, and these are located in only one area of the brain. They are comprised of simple focal seizures, complex focal seizures, and secondary generalized seizures.

Simple focal seizures will affect only a small part of the brain, and can cause twitching or changes in sensation, such as taste or smell. Individuals experiencing complex focal seizures can seem confused or dazed, and will be unable to respond to questions or direction for up to a few minutes. Finally, secondary generalized seizures begin in one area of the brain, and then spread to both sides.

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