Most people with epilepsy live a full life span. However, there are potential factors associated with living with epilepsy and seizures that may increase the risk of early death:

  • Sometimes epilepsy is a symptom of a more serious condition, such as a stroke or a tumor that carries an increased risk of death.
  • Accidents such as drowning, burning, choking, or falling can occur during a seizure, and may result in injuries that are serious or potentially life threatening.
  • Persons with epilepsy have an increased risk for depression and suicide.
  • Very long seizures or seizures that happen quickly, one after another (called status epilepticus), can also be life-threatening. Status epilepticus can sometimes occur when seizure medicine is stopped suddenly.
  • Some people with epilepsy may die suddenly, without explanation. This is called SUDEP which stands for Sudden Unexpected Death in Epilepsy. SUDEP is not well understood, although current research indicates it may be related to heart rhythm problems and/or respiratory problems during a seizure. The risk of sudden death occurs more among people with convulsive seizures, especially generalized tonic-clonic seizures, which are not well controlled.
  • Good seizure control and use of safety measures can reduce the risk of epilepsy-related death.
A death is referred to as a ‘SUDEP’ when a seemingly healthy person with epilepsy dies unexpectedly and no reason for the death can be found. In most cases, an autopsy is required to rule out other causes of death. The most common criteria used to determine whether a death is due to SUDEP are (Leestma, et al 1997):

  • The person has epilepsy, which is defined as recurrent unprovoked seizures.
  • The person died unexpectedly while in a reasonable state of health.
  • The death occurred suddenly.
  • The death occurred during normal activity (often during sleep and found in or near the bed).
  • An obvious medical cause of death could not be determined at autopsy.
  • The death was not the direct result of status epilepticus.

Although there have been no large scale studies of SUDEP in the U.S., data are available from a variety of sources. The most important thing to remember is that the incidence of SUDEP differs greatly depending upon the population studied.

Elson So, M.D., Professor of Neurology and Chair of Electroencephalography at Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota and past chair of the Joint SUDEP Task Force of the American Epilepsy Society and the Epilepsy Foundation states “for a person with epilepsy, in general, the risk is small, at one in 3,000 persons over a one-year period. For a person with poorly controlled seizures, especially generalized convulsions, the risk is one in 100 persons over one year. Persons with absence or myoclonic seizures are not known to have increased risk for SUDEP.”

As with adults, the answer depends on how severe the epilepsy is. In general, however, risks are lower in children than in adults (Leestma, et al 1997).

No one knows what causes SUDEP. However, irregularities in heart rhythm, breathing dysfunction, disturbance in brain circulation, and seizure- induced hormone and metabolic changes have all been suggested as potential causes of SUDEP (Surges, et al 2009). It is not yet known what role seizures play in SUDEP.

While SUDEP can happen to anyone with epilepsy, some people are at higher risk than others (Torbjörn, et al 2008).

Risk factors most consistently associated with SUDEP are:

  • Seizures that can’t be controlled
  • Treatment with multiple anticonvulsant drugs
  • Having long standing chronic epilepsy

Other risk factors include:

  • Generalized tonic-clonic seizures
  • Seizures that happen at night (called nocturnal seizures)
  • Not taking anticonvulsant medicine as prescribed
  • Stopping the use of anticonvulsant medicine abruptly
  • Developmental delays
  • Onset of epilepsy at a young age

While our understanding of SUDEP and how to prevent it is still unfolding there are measures that people with epilepsy and their families can take to try to reduce their risk:

  • Maximize seizure control. Take medication as prescribed. If medicines do not work, then consider other therapies such as epilepsy surgery, the vagus nerve stimulator, and the ketogenic diet.
  • Eat well, get enough rest and regular exercise and keep stress to a minimum whenever possible.
  • Be aware of and avoid any potential seizure triggers. Keep a record of things that occurred before a seizure (such as, were you ill, tired, stressed, hungry? Where did the seizure occur and what time of day was it?).
  • Night time supervision
  • Heart rate monitor
  • Breathing alarm
  • Knowledge of emergency resuscitation measures including CPR and use of a defibrillator
There are no data to support the use of these pillows. However, you may wish to discuss any possible benefits with your doctor.
This type of device could alert you to a seizure that is accompanied by audible sounds but may not alert you that your loved one has stopped breathing.
If your doctor has not spoken to you about the health risks associated with epilepsy including SUDEP, schedule an appointment to meet with him or her. Questions to ask include: What risks do I/my family member have for SUDEP? What can we do to reduce the risk of SUDEP?
There are some studies that suggest genetic factors may play a role, but no definite information is available at this time.
The person has to have a diagnosis of epilepsy for SUDEP to be considered. However, in SUDEP, the death may not be the direct result of a seizure. It is not certain what role seizures play in the death process. The absence of evidence of a seizure prior to death does not preclude it from being deemed SUDEP.
Information provided by: CUREEpilepsy.com