Penned by Muriel Faye Hugh
Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder where an individual experiences repeated seizures due to abnormal brain activity. Although anyone can have epilepsy, research by Telma Assis reveals that the risk of epilepsy increases with age. Among the elderly population, its prevalence ranges from 82.8 to 135.4 per 100,000 people. It shows that active epilepsy among elderly individuals is up to 1.5%, making it almost three times higher than among younger individuals.
Because epilepsy is more common among older adults, advanced diagnoses and treatments are available for elderly patients. Fortunately, if you are aware of the signs of epilepsy and receive an early diagnosis from a healthcare provider, you can effectively manage the symptoms and help seniors become seizure-free.
Symptoms of epilepsy among individuals can vary depending on their seizure type. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) explains that the common symptoms of epilepsy include temporary loss of awareness or consciousness, changes in sensations—such as hearing, vision, taste, and smell—and slow cognitive functions, affecting speech and understanding.
But what makes epilepsy more complicated among older adults is that it may be difficult to distinguish from the usual signs of aging. For example, memory problems, confusion, falls, dizziness, and sensory changes like numbness are often dismissed as signs of aging. Because of this, an article by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says some cases of epilepsy in seniors may remain unnoticed until the symptoms worsen. If you recognize some of these signs occurring repeatedly over time among your older relatives, they could be signs of seizures, and your loved one should consult with a healthcare provider as soon as possible.
Apart from a neurological exam and blood tests to detect possible genetic conditions, epilepsy among seniors is diagnosed with an electroencephalogram (EEG). According to the Mayo Clinic, EEG is a test that measures electrical activity in the brain using small metal discs or electrodes attached to the scalp. If an elderly individual has epilepsy, it's common to have changes in their typical pattern of brain waves, even when they're not having a seizure. These changes will be examined by a medical professional, and they can determine what kind of seizure an elderly patient is experiencing before recommending appropriate treatments.
Unfortunately, epilepsy is still incurable, but many treatment options are available for elderly patients. In fact, studies revealed that anti-seizure medications control seizures in about 60% to 70% of people with epilepsy. However, it’s necessary to consult with a medical professional before taking anti-seizure medicines, especially if the patient has more than one chronic health condition, as many older adults do.
If medications cannot control their seizures, non-pharmacological treatments, like ketogenic diets, are also available. It’s a type of diet where a person consumes food high in fat, moderate in protein, and low in carbohydrates. Research by Angela Poff and colleagues explains that this diet may be effective for some seniors with epilepsy because ketones have an anti-epileptic effect on the brain. As always, consult with a medical professional about what diet and treatments may be helpful.
Moreover, the introduction of digital healthcare services makes managing epilepsy faster and more convenient for doctors and older patients. Maryville University discusses how the digital healthcare landscape helps medical professionals meet the challenges and demands of the modern day. For example, a study by Juma Mbwana and colleagues shows that electronic health records (EHR) systems and wearable devices advance the overall efficiency and quality of care of patients with epilepsy. When patients use seizure-detection devices or when caregivers use online seizure diaries, information like seizure frequency can be immediately transferred to the patient’s health record in real time. This will help doctors manage and treat seizures and guide them during their next medical appointment. With digital-healthcare services and wearables, the management of epilepsy for elderly patients is immediate and accessible.
However, one of the most effective forms of treatment and management care you can provide to your older patients with epilepsy is your patience and understanding. In our previous interview with Donna Stahlhut, she shares how many people with epilepsy feel stigmatized and isolated from their communities. To empower patients battling with this condition, Stahlhut aims to let people with epilepsy know that they are not alone and that there are other people like them who live with epilepsy. So when caring for seniors with epilepsy, let them know you are there for them no matter what.
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