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Epilepsy Not Uncommon in Seniors

Home Instead CAREGiver takes care of epileptic senior.
Most seniors with epilepsy can be independent and lead normal lives, but they may get an added measure of security to have a paid companion help around the house.

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The number of new epilepsy cases among the elderly is on the rise, and researchers project that half of all people in the U.S. who are diagnosed with epilepsy by 2020 will be 65 or older. Many with this condition can benefit from assistance at home, the experts say.

Q. One of my mother’s friends was just diagnosed with epilepsy. I thought this was a condition of only the young. Can epilepsy strike seniors, and can my mother’s friend still live at home?

It’s a common myth that only children and young adults get epilepsy when, in fact, the segment of the population with the fastest growing incidence is older adults, according to the American Society on Aging (ASA) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Nationwide, 570,000 older adults have been diagnosed with epilepsy, the ASA and CDC report. “That is a considerable change from the past when most doctors thought of epilepsy as a childhood problem that you may or may not outgrow,” according to Dr. Steven C. Schachter, M.D., a Harvard Medical School professor and neurologist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. One estimate is that, by the year 2020, one half of patients with epilepsy will be over age 65, Dr. Schachter said.

Research shows that since the 1980s, the incidence of new-onset epilepsy has increased among older people. Scientists are still trying to find out why, although part of the reason could be the growth in the number of older adults and associated risk factors, such as stroke and falls, which are more common in seniors and increase the risk for seizures.

Epilepsy among older adults is often mistaken for another condition, such as dementia, stroke, heart disease, transient amnesia, or dismissed as just part of getting older, Dr. Schachter said. The symptoms of epilepsy — strange feelings, memory blanks, subtle behavioral changes, an unaccountable loss of time, staring, temporary confusion or seizures — might be milder in older adults than in their younger counterparts.

Most seniors with epilepsy can be independent and lead normal lives, the ASA and CDC report. But it may give your mother’s friend an added measure of security if she had friends who stopped in to see her or even a paid companion to help her around the house.

Your mother could tell her friend about the local Home Instead®, a non-medical senior-care and companionship organization that hires CAREGiversSM who provide assistance to seniors in their homes. They help older adults by offering medication reminders, and serving as a second set of eyes and ears around the home.

Last revised: December 28, 2011

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