Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain that causes seizures, convulsions, and eventually brain trauma. While symptoms can be managed, the disease itself can create the likelihood for other ailments. For example, a new, long-term, study indicates that those with epilepsy are at a greater risk for untimely deaths. The disease creates additional risk factors that can lead to death, and also deteriorates mental health on the path to an untimely death.

The 41-year study included 69,995 people with epilepsy born in Sweden between 1954 and 2009. The causes of death were assessed and compared with 660,869 age- and gender-matched individuals from the general population, and 81,396 unaffected siblings of people with epilepsy to account for the influence of genetic or early environmental risk factors.

Researchers found that nine percent of people with epilepsy died during their follow up period. This was far greater than the number of people who died from the general population (0.7 percent). The findings seem to indicate that epileptics are more likely to die, regardless of the cause, than people in the general population. Whether this was related to epilepsy itself, or comorbid factors epilepsy creates, was the next order of business for the study's authors.

Of the epileptic patients, 75 percent also had a diagnosis of mental health disorder. More than half had issues with substance abuse and 23 percent were diagnosed with depression. Three percent of epileptics died by committing suicide, while four percent died as the result of accidents. Whether their epileptic seizures were a contributing factor is unknown.

Shockingly, researchers found an 11-fold increase in the odds of early death, compared with the general public. Though the majority of early deaths were from suicides, the odds of death four times higher for those with epilepsy than those without the disorder.

"Our results have significant public health implications as around 70 million people worldwide have epilepsy, and emphasize that carefully assessing and treating psychiatric disorders as part as part of standard checks in persons with epilepsy could help reduce the risk of premature death in these patients," said Seena Fazel, MD, lead author of the study. "Our study also highlights the importance of suicide and non-vehicle accidents as major preventable causes of death in people with epilepsy,"

The study's authors suggest that reducing premature death should be a priority in epilepsy management. Health care professionals should offer counseling to those who exhibit signs of other mental illnesses, and should also teach epileptics to be careful about their activities so they can avoid accidents.

Source: Fazel S, Wolf A, Langstrom N, Newton CR, Lichtensein P. Premature mortality in epilepsy and the role of psychiatric comorbidity: a total population study. The Lancet. 2013.