Q. A friend of mine said you can get epilepsy when you get old. I always thought this was something that came on you when you were a kid. What’s the story?
Epilepsy, which is sometimes called a seizure disorder, can strike at any age, but it usually starts during childhood and after age 65.
People with epilepsy suffer from abnormal signals in the brain that can affect the senses and emotions. These faulty signals can also generate convulsions, muscle spasms and loss of consciousness.
The common image of epilepsy is of someone on the floor, unconscious and suffering wild convulsions. This is only one scenario created by epilepsy. Doctors have described more than 30 different types of seizures. An epileptic seizure can also create less intense symptoms such as confusion, a staring spell, lapse of awareness, and jerking movements by the limbs.
More than two million people in the United States have been diagnosed with epilepsy or had an unprovoked seizure. You must have two or more seizures to be diagnosed with epilepsy. Seizures can be controlled with drugs and surgery in about 80 percent of cases of epilepsy.
There are seizures that may not be associated with epilepsy. Many people have a single seizure without a sequel. Children sometimes have a seizure with a high fever.
Eclampsia, which can develop in pregnant women, produces sudden elevations of blood pressure and seizures. Then there are pseudoseizures that produce no evidence in the brain.
There’s no cure yet for epilepsy. However, in some cases, epilepsy just goes away. The likelihood of becoming seizure-free spontaneously is better for children than adults.
The onset of epilepsy is often traced to a head trauma, disease or stroke—something that injures your brain or deprives it of oxygen. About one-third of all cases of newly developed epilepsy in the elderly appears to be caused by disease that reduces the supply of oxygen to brain cells.
Many types of epilepsy tend to run in families. However, epilepsy has no identifiable cause in about half the cases.
The following are some instructions if you see someone having a seizure:
First, call immediately for medical help.
Roll the person on his/her side to prevent choking on any fluids.
Cushion the person's head.
Loosen any tight clothing around the neck.
Do not put anything into the person’s mouth, especially your fingers. It’s a myth that people are in danger of swallowing their tongues during a seizure.
Keep the person's airway open. If necessary, grip the person’s jaw gently and tilt his/her head back.
Don’t try to restrain or wake someone having a seizure.
If the person is moving, clear away dangerous objects.
Stay with the person until medical personnel arrive. If possible, observe the person closely so that you can provide details on what happened.
Look for a medical alert bracelet. The bracelet should have an emergency contact and names of medications the person uses.
After the seizure ends, the person will probably be groggy and tired. He or she also may have a headache and be confused or embarrassed.
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