Epilepsy Facts and Statistics: What You Need to Know

Prevalence, Risks, and Survival

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that causes recurrent seizures (uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain). There are many types and causes of epilepsy, including brain damage and genetic brain diseases.

Epilepsy can be treated with medications or other interventions to help prevent seizures from occurring, and there are some ways to reduce the risk of epilepsy.

This article will describe the prevalence of epilepsy among different age groups, risk factors, causes, the impact of epilepsy on life expectancy, and more. 

Monitoring a person with epilepsy

Keith Brofsky / Getty Images

Epilepsy Overview

First-time seizures without a previously identified cause need medical treatment and a workup. Epilepsy is diagnosed when a person experiences repeated seizures. While there are different seizure patterns and symptoms, most people who have epilepsy experience one or just a few specific seizure patterns.

Epileptic seizures can either occur without a trigger or be triggered by certain factors, such as fever, infections, illness, sleep deprivation, alcohol, and drugs. 

The most common symptoms of a seizure are: 

  • Decreased awareness of surroundings
  • Lack of responsiveness 
  • Involuntary movements (muscle jerks, twitches, stiffening of arms or legs, rhythmic shaking)
  • Decreased purposeful movements 

Most seizures last for a few seconds and are followed by fatigue or sleepiness. Many people who have epilepsy can feel subtle symptoms before a seizure begins. Seizures lasting more than 30 seconds should be treated. If the activity continues for more than five minutes, or if there are clusters of seizures, it is a medical emergency.

How Common Is Epilepsy?  

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one out of 100 people in the United States experiences epilepsy. 

This number has been fairly stable over the years and there are no specific indications that it would change in the near future.

Epilepsy by Ethnicity

Many factors can affect the incidence and outcome of epilepsy. There are cases of epilepsy in every country in the world. Ethnicity is not specifically associated with epilepsy.

Access to healthcare affects the risk and outcomes of epilepsy.

For example:

  • Prenatal care is an important factor in epilepsy risk. Problems with pregnancy and delivery can cause a developing baby or a newborn to experience brain damage, which can cause some children to have epilepsy.
  • Getting regular health checkups reduces the risk of stroke (a blockage of blood flow in the brain), which can cause epilepsy.
  • Proper medical care after a stroke or head trauma can also help lower the incidence and severity of epilepsy. 

Demographic features and race are associated with co-occurring conditions in people with epilepsy. This can add complexity to care and increase the risk of disability.

One large study found that of the people with epilepsy, American Indians and Alaska Natives had a higher prevalence of developmental disorders and that Black people had a higher prevalence of hypertension (chronic high blood pressure).

Epilepsy by Age and Gender 

According to the CDC, epilepsy affects 3 million adults and 470,000 children in the United States. The condition can begin during infancy, childhood, adolescence, or later in life. 

Many children who have mild or moderate epilepsy can have good seizure control with medical or surgical interventions. Some children may also have associated congenital (present at birth) neurological impairments, such as paralysis, speech difficulties, or learning impairment. 

Young children who have severe forms of epilepsy may have significant disabilities due to the associated brain malformations or genetic changes that can cause severe types of epilepsy.

Sometimes, the recurrent seizures and the high doses of medications that are often needed can interfere with many aspects of learning and development. Very severe early childhood epilepsy is also associated with a risk of early death. 

Adolescents and adults who develop epilepsy as a result of brain damage can have a range in the severity of epilepsy. Those who have had a major stroke or substantial head trauma may also have severe neurological deficits, such as personality changes and loss of independence.

Males have a slightly increased incidence of epilepsy and unprovoked seizures than females. Some epilepsy drugs can damage a developing fetus and should not be taken during pregnancy.

Causes of Epilepsy and Risk Factors

There are many different epilepsy causes and risk factors. 

Causes include:

  • Genetic conditions can cause epilepsy at an early age. 
  • Pregnancy or delivery complications experienced by the mother can cause epilepsy that begins during the baby’s infancy.
  • Head trauma can cause epilepsy at any age. 
  • Meningitis (infection of the brain lining) or encephalitis (brain infection or inflammation) can cause epilepsy at any age. 
  • A stroke or a brain tumor can cause epilepsy at any age but usually affects adults over age 60.
  • Alcohol misuse may cause epilepsy, usually in adulthood. 
  • Systemic health issues, such as diabetes, kidney failure, or liver failure, can cause epilepsy.

What Are the Mortality Rates for Epilepsy? 

One large study found that people with epilepsy have a life expectancy that is reduced by approximately 14 years. Causes of early death included all causes of death, including heart disease, accidents, and suicide.

Another study found that people who have epilepsy have a substantially higher risk of death from sudden unexplained death in epilepsy SUDEP than the general population.

This risk is especially high for people with epilepsy who, within the past year, have experienced generalized tonic-clonic seizures (also called grand mal seizures, which involve abnormal electrical activity throughout the brain that affects the entire body).

Mortality Rate

Epilepsy is associated with a risk of early death. The mortality rate (deaths per a percentage of the population in a given time frame) of people with epilepsy is two to three times higher than the general population.

Screening and Early Detection 

In general, epilepsy screening is not routine, but children who are at high risk may be monitored for clinical signs of seizures.

Children who are at risk of having an inherited epilepsy disorder may be screened with a genetic test if there is a known genetic mutation. Or, they may have electroencephalogram (EEG) tests, which can sometimes detect abnormal brain electrical activity that’s consistent with seizures. 

Sometimes an EEG is done to screen for signs of epilepsy after a stroke, brain injury, or brain tumor, but often this test is reserved for people who have had a seizure.

Early diagnosis and treatment are important to prevent seizures and resulting complications, such as injuries that can happen during a seizure. Additionally, good seizure control may help protect the brain from damage that could lead to more seizures or other neurological effects. 

Summary 

Epilepsy includes many different conditions that can cause recurrent seizures. Epilepsy affects approximately 1% of the U.S. population. It can begin at any age.

Childhood epilepsy usually results from genetic conditions or pregnancy issues. Adult-onset epilepsy is typically caused by brain damage, such as from a stroke or head trauma.

Most of the time, epilepsy can be managed with anti-seizure medications that help prevent seizures. While most seizures are not life-threatening, people who have epilepsy have a higher risk of early death. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are seizures fatal?

    Most seizures are not fatal. A seizure can lead to accidental death if a person has a seizure while driving or swimming. A rare type of prolonged seizure, known as status epilepticus, has a high rate of causing disability or death.

  • Is epilepsy inherited?

    Some types of epilepsy are inherited in families. The types of epilepsy that run in families range from mild to severe and may be associated with other neurological problems, but not always.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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