Epilepsy is a neurological disorder in children and adults that is characterized by two or more unprovoked seizures, or disruptions to the brain's normal electrical activity. It’s a relatively common disorder, affecting about 50 million people around the world.
Despite how common epilepsy is, its causes aren’t well known. Sometimes an injury to the brain or unrelated health condition causes epilepsy, but two out of every three people with epilepsy don’t have a clearly known cause. Because there are both known and unknown causes, you can’t always prevent epilepsy, but there are still ways to reduce your risk.
Who Is Most at Risk?
About three million people in the United States have epilepsy, but only about 30% of those people can trace their condition back to an injury, illness, or family history. Among that 30%, there are several common causes, including:
- Prior history of stroke or brain tumor
- History of traumatic brain injury, such as a serious fall or car accident
- Viral, bacterial, or parasitic brain infection, like meningitis or Zika
- Prior loss of oxygen to the brain
- Certain neurological and genetic disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease
Epilepsy affects people of all ages, genders, and ethnicities, but some groups of people are more vulnerable than others:
- Infants and people over age 60 are at the highest risk for new onset of epilepsy.
- Non-Hispanic white Americans are more likely to have epilepsy versus Hispanic Americans, but Black Americans are more likely to have it than white Americans.
- People assigned male at birth are more likely to have epilepsy than people assigned female at birth.
There is a connection between having a family history of epilepsy and an increased risk of developing the condition. Many cases of epilepsy, especially in children and when the cause of epilepsy is unknown, are the result of a person inheriting one or more genes that increase their seizure risk.
Some studies suggest that idiopathic epilepsy, or epilepsy without a known cause, is the kind of epilepsy most likely to recur within families, particularly between first-degree relatives (a parent, sibling, or child).
That said, idiopathic epilepsy can occur at random, with or without any genetic connection. If you’ve been diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy, you might consider talking to a genetic counselor about genetic testing. This can be beneficial for several reasons:
- It can give you a more accurate diagnosis of the cause of your epilepsy.
- It can help your doctor prescribe more effective medications for your specific diagnosis.
- It can make you aware of any elevated risk of having a child with epilepsy.
- It can help you inform family members of any elevated risk of developing epilepsy.
Remember that testing does have limitations; it may not give you all the information you’re looking for or change your diagnostic outlook much. However, it can often be a helpful tool as you learn to manage your condition.
How to Reduce Your Risk
For the majority of people with epilepsy, the condition has no known cause and there isn’t any way to prevent it. But there are ways to reduce your risk of developing a type of epilepsy brought on by one of the known causes of the condition.
Practice Basic Injury Prevention
Traumatic brain injury can lead to epilepsy, so preventing this type of injury can also reduce your risk for epilepsy. Brain injuries have many different causes, but some of the easiest ways to protect your brain include:
- Wearing a seat belt in a car and utilizing the correct restraint systems for children
- Wearing protective headgear when appropriate, such as when riding a bike or motorcycle, riding a horse, doing extreme sports such as snowboarding, and playing contact sports
- Understanding your fall risk and taking steps to set up a safe environment
- Supervising young children at home and on the playground
- Knowing the signs of abuse, including shaken baby syndrome and domestic violence
Take Care of Your Heart
Having one or more strokes increases your risk for epilepsy, so maintaining healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels can reduce your risk. Eating a diet that is low in sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat may help keep your blood pressure and cholesterol levels low.
Alcohol and tobacco use can also increase your stroke risk. Avoiding excessive amounts of alcohol and tobacco can keep your heart functioning at a healthy level.
Practice Good Hygiene
Certain parasitic infections, namely cysticercosis, can infect brain tissue and trigger seizure disorders. This is less of an issue in the U.S. than in some other countries worldwide, but good hand hygiene, especially around food sources, and proper food preparation (e.g. cooking meat to the correct internal temperature) are important wherever you live.
Receive Appropriate Prenatal Care
Some types of birth injuries can cause epilepsy in babies, and so can neonatal conditions like premature birth and low birth weight. Not all of these can be avoided with early and consistent prenatal care, but following the recommended schedule for prenatal checkups improves birth outcomes and may prevent some of the causes of epilepsy in young children.
Stay Up-to-Date on Vaccinations
Viral, fungal, and bacterial central nervous system infections, such as meningitis and encephalitis, can trigger epilepsy. There aren’t vaccines for every type of infection that can cause epilepsy, but staying up-to-date with the recommended vaccination schedule decreases your risk of contracting many of these illnesses and makes you less likely to develop epilepsy as a result of infection.
Discuss With Your Healthcare Provider
Talk to your healthcare provider about your concerns about developing epilepsy, especially after a traumatic brain injury, severe illness or brain infection, or diagnosis of stroke or brain tumor. Ask for preventive measures you can take and discuss any major lifestyle or medical changes with your healthcare provider before implementing them.
A Quick Review
Some causes of epilepsy can be prevented, but the majority of people with this condition don’t know what caused their epilepsy or why they developed it. The condition can have a genetic cause and often runs in families. For the known causes of epilepsy, a few prevention strategies—like avoiding brain injury and infection, reducing your risk of stroke, and receiving adequate prenatal care—can help decrease your chances of epilepsy onset.
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