Recognizing and preventing epilepsy-related mortality: A call for action

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Epilepsy is associated with a high rate of premature mortality from direct and indirect effects of seizures, epilepsy, and antiseizure therapies. Sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP) is the second leading neurologic cause of total lost potential life-years after stroke, yet SUDEP may account for less than half of all epilepsy-related deaths. Some epilepsy groups are especially vulnerable: individuals from low socioeconomic status groups and those with comorbid psychiatric illness die more often than controls. Despite clear evidence of an important public health problem, efforts to assess and prevent epilepsy-related deaths remain inadequate. We discuss factors contributing to the underestimation of SUDEP and other epilepsy-related causes of death. We suggest the need for a systematic classification of deaths directly due to epilepsy (e.g., SUDEP, drowning), due to acute symptomatic seizures, and indirectly due to epilepsy (e.g., suicide, chronic effects of antiseizure medications). Accurately estimating the frequency of epilepsy-related mortality is essential to support the development and assessment of preventive interventions. We propose that educational interventions and public health campaigns targeting medication adherence, psychiatric comorbidity, and other modifiable risk factors may reduce epilepsy-related mortality. Educational campaigns regarding sudden infant death syndrome and fires, which kill far fewer Americans than epilepsy, have been widely implemented. We have done too little to prevent epilepsy-related deaths. Everyone with epilepsy and everyone who treats people with epilepsy need to know that controlling seizures will save lives.

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