U.S. Epilepsy Rates Continue to Rise

Epilepsy rates are rising in children and adults according to a new report from the CDC. The percentage of the U.S. population diagnosed with epilepsy rose from 0.8% in 2011 to 1.2% in 2015, totaling over 3 million adults and approximately 0.5 million children.

Categorized as a spectrum disorder due to a range in severity and frequency of seizures, epilepsy can shorten an affected person’s life expectancy and reduce overall wellbeing. Those with epilepsy are also more likely to be diagnosed with other chronic conditions such as depression, asthma, and genetic diseases.

Additionally, epilepsy diagnoses account for an estimated $15.5 billion in direct medical and indirect earnings costs per year. People with epilepsy are also more likely to experience health and social disparities and barriers to civic engagement, leading to a reliance on social programs like Medicaid. In 2015, an estimated 3.4% of adults aged 20-64 who receive Medicaid have been diagnosed with epilepsy, a rate nearly three times higher than the general public.

Children in particular can face negative repercussions due to epilepsy, as they more likely to live in poverty and have their parents report food insecurity than children not diagnosed with the illness.

Hospitals Reporting the Greatest Number of Inpatient Epilepsy Diagnoses in 2015

Hospital State Est Total # Diagnoses
Florida Orlando Hospital FL 4,401
New York Presbyterian Hospital NY   3,862
Methodist University Hospital TN  3,761
Montefiore Medical Center Main Campus NY  3,647
UF Health Shands Hospital FL  3,006
UPMC Presbyterian ShadySide PA 2,987
Methodist Hospital TX 2,625
Thomas Jefferson University Hospital PA 2,514
Yale New Haven Hospital CT 2,421
Barnes - Jewish Hospital South MO 2,393

Fig 1 Data from Definitive Healthcare

One possible explanation for the increased number of diagnoses is an overall population increase over the past ten years. However, the overall rate has grown along with the population. Another potential contributor is a better understanding of the illness by medical professionals, leading to an increased ability to diagnose patients.

Because seizures vary in frequency, type, and severity, it can be difficult for those unfamiliar with the symptoms to recognize them. Absence seizures, also referred to as “staring spells,” involve brief twitching motions in a specific part of the body, such as the eyelids. Because absence seizures do not involve the full-body convulsions that most people associate with epilepsy, those affected can go undiagnosed for long periods of time.

Epilepsy is also one of the most expensive illnesses to treat, with direct annual costs reported between $10,192 and $47,862 per patient in 2013. These costs can be even higher for those with uncontrolled or unpredictable seizures. Medical professionals usually only prescribe daily medication if a patient experiences frequent seizures, otherwise opting for emergency medications for those with less frequent episodes.

Though seizures can be controlled for many people with epilepsy, they may still face complications. Many states, for example, will not issue a driver’s license to a person with epilepsy unless they have been seizure-free for a specified length of time. Those with epilepsy are also more likely to face complications during pregnancy and childbirth, including birth defects caused by anti-seizure medications.

Treatments most often include medication, which are very effective for most patients. For some, at-home EEGs can be used to monitor the brain’s electrical impulses to better understand how to treat an individual. Surgery can also be an option, though this is only a viable option for a small percentage of patients.


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