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Experts say more research and access to treatment are needed for people with epilepsy. Oscar Wong/Getty Images
  • Epilepsy is a neurological condition that produces changes in the brain that can cause seizures.
  • Researchers say people with the condition have a higher risk of early death than the general population.
  • The risk can fluctuate depending on the severity of the epilepsy and what other health issues a person may have.

People with epilepsy have a higher risk of premature death than those without the disease, even with treatment, according to a study published today in the journal Neurology.

Researchers studied nearly 140,000 people living in Korea over a 10-year period. The participants had an average age of 49 at the start of the study.

The researchers reported that the people with epilepsy had twice the risk of death compared to those without the condition.

The researchers also reported a rural/urban divide in death risk. People with epilepsy living in urban areas had a 203% increased risk of premature death while those living in rural areas had a 247% increased risk.

Epilepsy is a neurological condition that produces an abnormal change in electrical activity in the brain that causes seizures.

“While I can’t speak to factors in Korea, in the U.S., people need to travel significant distances to obtain specialized epilepsy care,” said Dr. Rachel Kuperman, a pediatric neurologist and chief executive officer of Eysz, a company developing diagnostic tools for epilepsy.

“This is particularly burdensome for people with epilepsy who may not be able to drive because of the epilepsy itself,” Kuperman told Healthline. “It requires a significant support system to take time off of work, care for family and travel to obtain epilepsy care. While communities may have access to neurologists, on average in the U.S. it takes more than 17 years to be referred to a specialized epilepsy center.”

The risk of death among people with epilepsy was not equal, however.

Researchers reported that the severity of a person’s experience of the condition made a significant difference.

So did other health issues the study participants had.

For example, people with epilepsy with no other health conditions had a 161% higher risk of death compare to people without epilepsy.

However, a subset of study participants who had epilepsy but had been hospitalized only once or not at all had no higher risk of premature death than the general population.

Similarly, patients on a single epilepsy medication had a 156% greater risk of death than people without epilepsy during the study period.

Those taking four or more medications and almost a 500% higher risk of death.

“About one-third of people with epilepsy continue to have seizures despite medications,” Kuperman said. “So, most likely taking four or more medications is a marker for having harder-to-treat epilepsy, which would correlate with a higher seizure burden.”

In terms of causes of death, 19% of study participants died of cerebrovascular disease — a range of conditions including stroke that impairs blood flow to the brain — at a rate 4.5 times that of people without epilepsy.

In addition, 7% died of central nervous system cancer, at a rate 46 times higher than the general population.

Both of these conditions could be underlying causes of epilepsy itself, the researchers noted.

“Our study demonstrated a wide range of mortality risks in people with epilepsy, depending on age, disease duration, disease severity, and other health conditions,” Dr. Seo-Young Lee, a study author and researchers at Kangwon National University in Chuncheon in the Republic of Korea, said in a press release.

People with epilepsy also have increased risk of depression, which can affect their overall risk for premature death.

“We urge public health efforts to improve access to care. Active control of seizures, education about injury prevention, monitoring for suicidal thoughts, and efforts to improve accessibility to epilepsy care all contribute to reducing mortality,” Lee wrote.

Kuperman agreed.

“People with epilepsy need improved access to care,” she said. “Compared to other disorders of the brain, epilepsy receives significantly less research funding and investment into new treatments. People with epilepsy deserve holistic accessible just in time care that addresses not just the epilepsy but its co-morbidities. Caregivers also need the financial support to adequately care for loved ones with the disorder.”