Epilepsy Rates Reach Highest Ever Recorded in US

AUGUST 16, 2017
Kevin Kunzmann


Epilepsy is on the rise.

Using the first-ever complete data set from all 50 US states, the Center of Disease Control (CDC) reported that there are currently at least 3.4 million adults and children in the country living with active epilepsy. It is the greatest recorded total of epilepsy diagnoses in US history.

The rate of diagnoses is particularly substantial in adult patients. Since 2010, the adult epilepsy patient population in the US has increased at least 30%, from approximately 2.3 million to 3 million in 2015. In the same period, children patient diagnoses have increased from 450,000 to 470,000.

Though the researchers attributed the growing cases to — most likely — population growth, the rate of epilepsy comes out to it actively affecting 1.2% of the US population. Additionally, 22% of states (11) had reported having 92,000 or more epilepsy patients. 

“Millions of Americans are impacted by epilepsy, and unfortunately, this study shows cases are on the rise,” CDC Director Brenda Fitzgerald, MD, said. “Proper diagnosis is key to finding an effective treatment – and at CDC we are committed to researching, testing, and sharing strategies that will improve the lives of people with epilepsy.”

The brain disorder — most known for its causing seizures — can lead in different circumstances to stroke, brain tumors, head injuries, central nervous system infections, or genetic risks. The growing population of patents afflicted with it supplementally face challenges in work, transportation, and affordable health care.

“Epilepsy is common, complex to live with, and costly. It can lead to early death if not appropriately treated,” Rosemarie Kobau, MPH, head of CDC’s Epilepsy Program, said. “Everyone should know how to recognize a seizure and how to give appropriate first aid.”

Jerry J. Shih, of the University of California San Diego Health division, told MD Magazine that quality of life remains an unmet need in epilepsy care.

“A lot of energies have been focused on trying to eliminate seizures to make people seizure-free, and absolutely that's our primary goal,” Shih said. “But for patients who are not seizure-free and who have undergone all of the appropriate studies – have tried a number of medications, may have gone through some surgical evaluation and procedures and are still not seizure-free – I think one of the challenges is how we as a society can come up with better ways of elevating their quality of care, our quality of life.”

Along with this growing rate of epilepsy cases is a changing definition of the condition itself, Shih said. In recent years, several guidelines have loosened their diction for epilepsy from its standard 2-seizure count.

“So the concept is, is that even if after one seizure if it's become pretty obvious that your brain is predisposed to having more seizures then by definition you have epilepsy, so that's sort of a little bit of a shift in terms of definition,” Shih said.

There’s also been a change in defining what it means to “cure” epilepsy, Shih said. Physicians now aim for patients to be seizure free for at least a decade — and medication-free for another 5 years – before assuming epilepsy will never longer affect them.

“I think first and foremost for other physicians who are not in the field of epilepsy it's important to understand that the definitions have actually changed or have evolved over the years,” Shih said.

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