Surprising Fact About Epilepsy: It’s More Common Than You May Think

New research suggests 1.2 percent of the U.S. population is affected


Contributor: Elaine Wyllie, MD

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In 2017, the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took a major step toward filling the gap in our knowledge about just how many Americans are experiencing active epilepsy.

In 2015, this number was 3.4 million people, up dramatically from an estimated 2.7 million in 2007 and 2010. These results indicate that active epilepsy is one of the nation’s most common neurological conditions, affecting a full 1.2 percent of the total U.S. population.

No data collected

Uncovering this new information required meticulous study. Although it may seem surprising, almost no states collect data on how many of their residents are affected with active epilepsy.

So the CDC researchers performed a state-by-state analysis of survey information derived from three separate nationwide data sources. They did not include people who experienced seizures in the distant past, but instead focused on people who are managing a life with active epilepsy today.

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The increased prevalence of active epilepsy is believed to be due to population growth over the last decade, or perhaps other unknown factors such as an increased willingness to disclose an epilepsy diagnosis on surveys.

We know that the increase is not due to age or income, because those factors were controlled for by the researchers. In any event, the striking new results provide important information for public health planning.

The challenge

The challenge presented by 3.4 million people with epilepsy is clearly significant on both the state and national level. In all, 11 states each have more than 92,700 citizens with active epilepsy, including people of all ages and ethnic and racial backgrounds. Of the 3.4 million Americans in the CDC study, 450,000 were children younger than age 18.

If you or a loved one are experiencing epilepsy, you are well aware of the extraordinary burden this condition can place on a person’s quality of life and a family’s economic well-being. Families touched by epilepsy are more likely to live in poverty and to be on Medicaid. Direct health care costs per person with epilepsy are estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars per year. Indirect costs, such as underemployment and job absenteeism, are much higher yet.

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Accurate population estimates are essential for crafting effective public health initiatives. It is imperative that we use this new research to develop sound programs to meet the complex needs of people with epilepsy and reduce the many burdens the condition puts on their lives.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.

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