What causes epilepsy and do seizures shorten a person’s life?

Written by: Dr Dora Lozsadi
Published: | Updated: 06/03/2020
Edited by: Lisa Heffernan

Epilepsy is a neurological disease, characterised by attacks or seizures that recur in episodes over time. An underlying brain abnormality causes the seizures and they can be tonic-clonic in nature or much less subtle. Here to tell us about the underlying causes of epilepsy and how seizures can affect life expectancy is Doctor Dora Lozsadi.

Anyone can develop epilepsy at any stage of their life. However, it is far more common in children and those over the age of 65. The underlying abnormality that causes epilepsy can vary. Epilepsy in children is mostly genetic, where a finite molecular abnormality in the brain affects how nerve cells communicate with each other. This abnormality is what causes seizures. Developmental abnormalities are also a cause, where abnormalities in blood vessels or developmental problems before birth can lead to epilepsy. Childhood trauma can also be to blame.

Later in life, structural abnormalities in the brain are more likely to cause epilepsy, but the underlying genetic predisposition for epilepsy will determine whether a person gets epilepsy or not. Older people who suffer from strokes or people who develop tumours are at a greater risk of developing epilepsy.

Are all seizures related to epilepsy?

No, not all seizures are related to epilepsy. Under certain conditions, the brain can generate a seizure, for example, if a person is lacking in oxygen, dehydrated or have had a large amount of alcohol. The seizure may unmask a genetic propensity for epilepsy but doesn’t mean that the person will go on to have the condition. Epilepsy in contrast to provoked, isolated seizures, generally involves two or more unprovoked seizures that occur over a period more of more than 24 hours.

Does epilepsy reduce life expectancy?

As a consequence of the underlying brain abnormality in people with epilepsy, reduced life expectancy is expected. Patients with poorly controlled epilepsy will have a lifespan reduced by approximately 10 years. Those who control it well may only have their life expectancy reduced by 2 years.

A child with learning difficulties and epilepsy, for example, can have a reduced life expectancy by decades, but someone without structural abnormalities in the brain, with normal memory and cognition, will have little or no reduction to their life expectancy.

Good control of epileptic seizures and knowing how to deal with them when they occur is the key to living longer with epilepsy. If you have epilepsy and would like to talk about your case, reach out to a specialist who can offer you their guidance and support.

By Dr Dora Lozsadi

Dr Dora Lozsadi is a an accomplished neurologist based at the Parkside Hospital in Wimbledon, London. She specialises in epilepsy, the management of epilepsy and the assessment of transient loss of consciousness. Currently, she is dedicated to grant-awarded research for Epilepsy Research UK on the study of brain activity using electrodes placed in the nose.

Dr Lozsadi gained her specialist training at the Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery, Liverpool and the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery (UCL), London. Prior to this, Dr Lozsadi was awarded her DPhil degree at the University of Oxford. She is currently an honorary senior lecturer for St George's, University of London.

At the core of Dr Lozsadi's approach is displacing the stigma surrounding neurological conditions and giving every patient treatment and care without prejudice. She has been a consultant neurologist for over ten years.

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