High blood pressure more than doubles the risk of epilepsy in older people

A woman having a seizure in hospital. There's a two-way causal link between epilepsy and cardiovascular disease.

A woman having a seizure in hospital. There's a two-way causal link between epilepsy and cardiovascular disease. Photo: Getty

Older people with high blood pressure are more than twice as likely to develop epilepsy – but these risks could be lowered by losing weight and doing some exercise, say the authors of a new study.

The research, the latest to find a link between epilepsy, high blood pressure and stroke, throws more light on the complex relationship between epilepsy and cardiovascular disease.

The findings aren’t a great surprise since stroke is the most common cause of epilepsy in older age.

Some background

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder in which brain activity becomes scrambled, causing seizures or periods of unusual behaviour, sensations and sometimes loss of awareness.

About half of all causes of epilepsy have no known cause.

Risk factors include age (the onset of epilepsy is most common in children and older adults), family history and head injuries, but also stroke and other vascular diseases.

Stroke and blood vessel diseases can lead to brain damage that may trigger epilepsy.

The relationship between epilepsy and the heart is a complex one.

People with epilepsy report cardiovascular disease more often than adults without epilepsy.

People with epilepsy have an elevated risk of acute myocardial infarctions and sudden cardiac death as compared to the general population.

The study

Researchers from the Boston University School of Medicine examined the role of modifiable vascular risk factors for predicting subsequent epilepsy among individuals aged 45 years or older.

The risk factors included hypertension, diabetes mellitus, smoking and hyperlipidemia (where your blood has too many fats, such as cholesterol and triglycerides). They’re all modifiable by changes in behaviour and diet.

The study followed 2986 people over the age of 45 who were examined as part of the Framingham Heart Study between 1991 and 1995.

Follow-up examinations occurred over an average of 19 years. During that time, 55 new cases of epilepsy were diagnosed.

High blood pressure (hypertension) was found to be “an independent predictor of epilepsy in older age”.

After excluding patients with normal blood pressure who were receiving antihypertensive treatment, hypertension was associated with a 2.44-times greater risk of developing epilepsy.

How to get your blood pressure down

  • Lose weight and trim your waistline
  • Exercise regularly
  • Eat a healthy diet that includes plenty of whole grains, fruit and vegetables, and more fish and chicken than red meat
  • Eat more bananas and other fruit and vegetables that contain potassium, which can offset the effects of sodium on your blood vessels
  • Cut back on the booze
  • Stop smoking
  • Reduce stress – an easy trick is to lie down on the floor and breathe deeply
  • Monitor your blood pressure at home
  • Talk to your doctor.
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