What is epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a chronic disorder of the brain that is characterised by abnormal electrical activity causing seizures or unusual behaviour, sensations and sometimes loss of awareness.

About 20,000 Tasmanians have epilepsy, but for every person with epilepsy there are four others providing care and support.

This means one-fifth of Tasmania’s population is directly affected by the condition.

Epilepsy can develop at any age. One in 10 Australians experience a seizure during their life. One in 26 of these develop epilepsy, which is two or more unprovoked seizures.
What causes epilepsy?
The causes of epilepsy are complex and vary depending upon the age at which the first seizure is experienced.

Known risk factors include serious head injuries sustained during motor vehicle accidents, trauma or serious falls; strokes or brain haemorrhages; prolonged oxygen deprivation; brain infections and abnormalities; tumours; degenerative conditions such as dementia; and genetic factors. In 40 per cent of cases the cause cannot be determined. 
Give me the stats
Tasmania has the highest prevalence of epilepsy than any other state or territory in Australia, with the figure expected to rise due to an older than average population, general rising life expectancy and an increasing proportion of people surviving incidents that often lead to epilepsy.

  • Epilepsy is the second most burdensome neurological condition after dementia.
  • Epilepsy has significant economic implications in terms of health care needs and lost productivity at work. 
  • 1 in 7 people who present to hospitals is there due to epilepsy.
  • The economic burden of epilepsy in Tasmania is shared mainly between individuals and the State Government at a cost of $11.8 million per year. It imposes a greater burden on Tasmania’s health system than prostate cancer, and one similar to that of lung cancer and Parkinson’s disease.
  • People with epilepsy die at three  times the rate of the general population. The mean age of death from epilepsy in Australia is 52 years (compared to the general current life expectancy of 80 - 84 years of age). The Years of Potential Life Lost through epilepsy-related deaths are greater than asthma (a national health priority) and similar to prostate cancer. 
  • People with epilepsy have a 15 to 19 times greater risk of drowning.

Can I go to school, to work or drive a car?
The World Health Organisation reports that 47 per cent of employed Australians with epilepsy report unfair treatment in the workplace but the Tasmanian statistic is worse, at 52 per cent. The most common place for discrimination is at work and school.
In schools, epilepsy is now the third most common health condition (in the order of diabetes, asthma, epilepsy then anaphylaxis) and one of the top five avoidable causes of death among five to 29-year-olds.
People with epilepsy are often unable to safely drive a motor vehicle: only one third of Tasmanians with epilepsy drive their own car. The remainder must rely on others, public transport or taxis and imposes an additional financial burden of around $231 per year.

What about other health conditions related to epilepsy?
People with epilepsy are up to eight times more likely to have other health conditions such as depression, dementia, heart disease and arthritis.

Half of all adults with epilepsy have at least one other health condition. Depression and anxiety from epilepsy make seizures worse and reduce quality of life.

 Advanced Alzheimer disease has been identified as a risk factor for new-onset generalized tonic-clonic seizures in older adults and is associated with a 10 per cent prevalence of seizures, particularly late in the illness. Increased prevalence of seizures have also been documented with other types of dementia.

Epilepsy is a lot more than seizures - people with epilepsy typically face an array of challenges additional to those involved in trying to prevent seizures, including cognitive, social, medical, mental health and psychosocial. 

The seizure is just the tip of the iceberg: underneath are many factors affecting concentration, memory, connections and the ability to function day-to-day. About 30 per cent of people with epilepsy cannot control their seizures with medication.

- Contributed by Epilepsy Tasmania
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