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Epilepsy? That One Thing May Be Putting You at Higher Risk of Early Death – and What You Can Do About It, According to New Study

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Epilepsy is a neurological condition characterized by the occurrence of irregular electrical short circuits in the brain. It is neither curable nor contagious, but it can be managed in certain cases.

Epilepsy can manifest at any age and its progression varies, sometimes worsening, improving, or even ceasing altogether. With approximately 50 million affected individuals globally, epilepsy stands as one of the most prevalent neurological disorders worldwide.

Furthermore, people with epilepsy face a risk of premature death up to three times higher than that of the general population.

A new study highlights the potential danger of seizures while driving in undiagnosed cases of focal epilepsy, urging for an immediate diagnosis to mitigate risks on the road.

A recent study published in the online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology, revealed that prior to receiving an epilepsy diagnosis, approximately 5% of individuals with focal epilepsy, a specific type of epilepsy, experienced a seizure while driving. Focal epilepsy represents over 50% of all epilepsy cases and is characterized by recurrent seizures that impact one hemisphere of the brain.

“Seizures while driving pose substantial risks for those experiencing them and for others on the road,” points out study author Jacob Pellinen. “While medication may make it possible for some people with epilepsy to safely drive, they must first be diagnosed. Our study sought to define how often seizures happen while driving before a diagnosis and then how long it takes before a person is diagnosed. Our results can then help inform how to diagnose people sooner, with a goal of lowering the number of prediagnosis seizures on the road.”

In this study, a group of 447 individuals diagnosed with focal epilepsy was examined. The participants had an average age of 29 when they had their initial seizure. The research team analyzed the participants’ medical records before their epilepsy diagnosis and discovered that 23 individuals, accounting for 5% of the group, had experienced one or more seizures while driving. In total, there were 32 instances of seizures occurring while driving prior to their epilepsy diagnosis.

Among the 23 individuals, seven of them (30%) had multiple seizures while driving before being diagnosed, while six individuals (26%) had their seizure while driving as their first-ever seizure. The repercussions of these seizures while driving included 19 motor vehicle accidents and 11 hospitalizations due to various injuries, such as tongue bites, dislocated thumbs, and near drownings.

The study revealed that, on average, there was a time gap of 304 days between the first seizure and experiencing a seizure while driving. The average duration from the first seizure while driving to an epilepsy diagnosis was 64 days.

Employed individuals were found to have a fourfold higher risk of experiencing a seizure while driving prior to diagnosis compared to those who were unemployed.

Furthermore, individuals who experienced non-motor seizures, characterized by temporary cessation of movement and staring, had an almost fivefold higher risk of having a seizure while driving prior to diagnosis compared to those who had motor seizures, characterized by sustained jerking movements or muscle weakness/rigidity alternation.

“Considering the United States has a population of just over 200 million people between ages 16 and 64, and considering the annual incidence of epilepsy, there are roughly 126,180 driving-age people in the country diagnosed with epilepsy each year,” adds Pellinen. “From our study, we estimate nearly 6,500 people per year may experience prediagnosis seizures while driving in the United States alone, leading to nearly 4,000 possible motor vehicle accidents and over 2,200 hospitalizations. Much of this may be preventable by earlier diagnosis.”

One limitation of this research was the reliance on self-reported seizure history by the participants, which may have resulted in potential inaccuracies or omissions in their recollection of details. As a result, there could have been an underreporting of the actual number of seizures experienced while driving. Moreover, it is important to note that the study had a small sample size and focused solely on one type of epilepsy. Therefore, future studies involving larger cohorts of individuals are necessary to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter.

Image Credit: Shutterstock

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