Special Populations: Who Gets Epilepsy?
Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: November 2021
There are more than 50 million people in the world with the brain disease epilepsy. About 3 million adults and half a million children in the United States have active epilepsy, or 1.2 percent of the total U.S. population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This means that in a group of 1,000 people, 1 person will have epilepsy.1-4
Epilepsy is the fourth most common brain disorder in the United States behind Alzheimer’s disease, migraine, and stroke. About 150,000 new cases are diagnosed each year.5
Who gets epilepsy? Anyone can develop seizures at any age. But certain groups have trends within their populations.
The Epilepsy Foundation estimates that nearly half a million children in the United States have epilepsy. It is easily controlled with medicine in some. Some age out of their seizures as a teen or adults. For others, epilepsy is hard to treat. This creates lifelong challenges in learning, behavior, and quality of life. Children with drug-resistant epilepsy often face social isolation, bullying, and poor self-esteem.6
Certain types of seizures are more common in children, such as:7-9
- Febrile seizures (seizures triggered by fever in children ages 3 months to 6 years)
- Seizures triggered by bright, flashing lights (most common in children and teens)
- Catamenial seizures (seizures triggered by a menstrual cycle)
Epilepsy is equally common in men and women. However, hormone changes are a common seizure trigger, and this can complicate women’s epilepsy. The severity and frequency of a woman’s seizures may change at puberty, with every menstrual period, during pregnancy, and at menopause. These life stages may require changes in treatment each time.10,11
Some have what is called catamenial epilepsy. This is a type of epilepsy in which seizures are triggered by certain stages of the menstrual cycle, such as ovulation.10
Birth control and pregnancy can be complicated by anti-seizure drugs. Some anti-seizure drugs are less reliable when taken with certain forms of birth control. Women who are pregnant or on birth control often need to make changes to their anti-seizure drugs or dosing. Some of these drugs should not be taken during pregnancy or while nursing.11
Active duty military and veterans
Traumatic brain injury is a common form of head trauma for people in the military. This is why veterans and active-duty military have a higher risk of developing epilepsy. Post-traumatic epilepsy (PTE) is a seizure disorder caused by traumatic brain injury. This form of epilepsy may also occur in anyone with a brain injury caused by a fall, car accident, or other head trauma.12
Epilepsy complicates a soldier’s health overall. Studies show that veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan have more health problems and higher death rates than those without epilepsy.13
Of the 3 million people in the United States with epilepsy, about a third, or 1 million, are adults aged 55 and older. Epilepsy becomes more common as we age due to:14
- Head injuries due to falls
- Brain tumors
However, about half of older adults with epilepsy do not have a known cause.14
Epilepsy can be hard to manage in older adults. That is because 8 out of 10 people 65 and older have multiple chronic health conditions. Anti-seizure drugs can be hard to balance with medicines taken for other conditions. Plus, many anti-seizure drugs have side effects like bone loss or dizziness. This can make you more likely to fall or be injured.14
Epilepsy, especially if it involves episodes of losing consciousness, can also interfere with the ability to drive or live alone. This can greatly impact quality of life because it limits independence.
If you know someone with epilepsy, you can help by learning seizure first aid and their seizure action plan.