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People 60 and older, brief gaps in conversation, periods of confusion, blank stares or being unresponsive are often chalked up to benign "senior moments." But these may actually be signs of epilepsy, which is now more prevalent among older Americans than any other age group. Unfortunately, the condition often goes unrecognized - even by healthcare professionals - or is improperly treated, according to experts who spoke today at a joint conference of The National Council on the Aging ( NCOA ) and the American Society on Aging ( ASA ).

"Epilepsy is one of the most often misdiagnosed, mistreated or under- treated conditions affecting seniors," said James Firman, Ed.D., President and CEO, NCOA. "We believe seniors, their families and their caregivers need to be more aware of the growing prevalence of epilepsy in this age group so they can discuss telltale symptoms with their physicians and, if diagnosed, are better equipped to deal with it."

Older Americans comprise about 25 percent of all those who have epilepsy or experience an unprovoked seizure, but because epilepsy is more often associated with major seizures causing convulsions, the more subtle but potentially dangerous symptoms in seniors are often overlooked.

"Unfortunately, most healthcare providers who care for older Americans aren't aware of these distinctions in diagnosis or treatment," says R. Eugene Ramsay, M.D., Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry; Director, International Center for Epilepsy, University of Miami and one of the speakers at the "When Senior Moments Become Cause for Concern" press briefing held this afternoon in Philadelphia.

One of Dr. Ramsay's patients, 70-year-old Suzanne Fishman, will be sharing her own experience being diagnosed with epilepsy at an older age. "At my age, I didn't think people developed epilepsy. I went through several treatments and suffered with side effects before they found one that kept my seizures under control without interfering with my life."

To help thousands of other seniors like Suzanne Fishman and caregivers, the NCOA has developed a free discussion guide, Controlling Epilepsy Later In Life, that can be accessed on the NCOA website at ncoa.org and clicking on Seniors' Corner. This guide covers important topics including the signs and symptoms of epilepsy and questions to ask a physician about diagnosis and treatment options that are most appropriate for older patients.

Although there are a number of effective therapies for treating epilepsy, treating seniors poses special challenges. According to Dr. Ramsay, older anti-epileptic drugs ( first generation anti-epileptics ) are primarily used to treat the most common type of seizures. "The older anti-epileptic drug carbamazepine is still being used most often to treat the most common type of seizures, but is far from ideal for elderly patients because it is difficult to dose accurately, interacts with other drugs often taken by elderly patients, and can have side effects such as heart toxicity, weight gain and bone loss."

"The newer, second generation treatments, such as levetiracetam," Dr. Ramsay continued, "have been developed in the past decade and are better treatment choices because of their ease in dosing, lack of side effects and they don't interact with other medications."

Because so little research has been performed comparing anti-epileptic drugs in the elderly, Dr. Ramsay and his colleagues are currently conducting a study comparing the efficacy and safety of two leading medications used to treat epilepsy in seniors. The well-controlled study will be conducted in multiple locations across the U.S. To learn more about the study and possible enrollment, patients and caregivers may call 305-575-7000 extension 3963.

Epilepsy In Seniors

Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that affects more than 2.5 million Americans, making it one of the most common neurological disorders. Once considered a disorder of the young, those over 65 constitute the most rapidly growing population with epilepsy, and epilepsy is twice as likely to occur in seniors. Epilepsy is not just a condition someone is born with, but can be caused by common health problems associated with aging, including stroke, certain cancers, and heart disease. It may also develop following a blow to the head, or trauma such as an auto accident.

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