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Epilepsy - Management

age aging clinical patients seizures drugs people

Reassurance, education, and information are of paramount importance in the management of elderly patients with seizures as in any other age group. Guidance on driving regulations, reasonable risk-taking, and the avoidance of precipitants of seizures should be covered. The mainstay of treatment is drug therapy. This should not be undertaken lightly and a so-called therapeutic trial of antiepileptic drugs in patients whose episodes are of uncertain nature is usually undesirable, unless the events are occurring with such frequency that the response to drugs can be assessed very quickly. It must be remembered that the adverse impact of drugs may outweigh the episodic discomfort of an occasional seizure. Drug treatment is usually started in patients who have more than one unprovoked generalized seizure or a single major seizure where there is a continuing underlying cause as in the case of a patient who has had a cerebral infarct in the past. The evidence that early treatment prevents recurrent epilepsy from becoming chronic (the notion that "fits breed fits") is poor. Patients with minor seizures that are not in any way interfering with their life may, if the episodes are infrequent, reasonably elect not to have drug treatment.

Recent meta-analyses have made the choice of anticonvulsant a little easier. There is evidence that carbamazepine has some advantages over the other first-line drugs (phenytoin or sodium valproate) for the generality of elderly people who have partial or secondary generalized seizures. However, there may be a case for using other drugs for first-line treatment in patients with specific problems. Where compliance demands that patients receive medication once daily, there may be a case for phenytoin, although this may predispose to bone demineralization as well as having the neuropsychiatric effects shared with other anticonvulsants. Carbamazepine may predispose to hyponatraemia (low sodium in the blood or less than 130 mmol/l), particularly in patients on diuretics or who have recurrent chest infections. Sodium valproate may be the drug of choice for patients who cannot tolerate either phenytoin or carbamazepine or in the small number of patients who have primary generalized seizures. There is relatively little evidence about the newer generation of anticonvulsants but lamotragine appears to be at least as effective as carbamazepine and may have fewer side effects, although it is expensive; and gabapentin has the advantage of not interacting with other drugs as well as being relatively non-toxic, although it may also be relatively less effect in controlling seizures. There are no recommended doses of anticonvulsants for older people. Overall, the retrospective analysis of a Veterans Administration's study of the effect of age on epilepsy and its treatment showed that older patients' seizures were better controlled and they were on lower doses of anticonvulsants than were younger patients. However, there is enormous variation between older people. Anti-epileptic drug monitoring may be particularly useful in the case of phenytoin and carbamazepine. The prognosis for control is at least as good as, or possibly better than, in the general adult population. There is little evidence about the appropriateness of withdrawal of anticonvulsants as studies have not been done in older people. Presently, an elderly person who has been started appropriately on an anticonvulsant may have to remain on it for the rest of his or her life.

Services for elderly people with epilepsy are often poorly developed: such patients fall between geriatrics and neurology services. There is a case for developing specialized epilepsy services for older people that can address both management of seizures and other concurrent problems and associated disabilities. A key element of that service would be a specialist epilepsy nurse.

RAYMOND C. TALLIS

BIBLIOGRAPHY

KRÄMER, G. Epilepsy in the Elderly—Clinical Aspects and Pharmacology. Stuttgart: Georg Thieme Verlag, 1999.

ROWAN, J. A., and RAMSEY, R. E. Seizures and Epilepsy in the Elderly. Newton, Mass.: Butter-worth-Heinemann, 1997.

TALLIS, R. C. Epilepsy in Elderly People. London: Martin Dunitz, 1995.

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