How are dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and seizures linked?

  • August 31, 2021
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For over a century, scientists have known that people with dementia are more likely to have seizures. In fact, the second person ever to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease also had epilepsy. But while dementia, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s disease and seizures have long been linked, it is only in the last few years that we have started to learn more of the reasons why.

So, what is the link between epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease?

Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s seizures

In recent years, several studies have been published which show that people with dementia diseases are more likely to have epileptic seizures than people who don’t have these degenerative conditions:

  • Parkinson’s and epilepsy: One UK study found that people with Parkinson’s disease were more than twice as likely to have epilepsy than people without Parkinson’s.
  • Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy: Numerous studies have shown that people with Alzheimer’s are more likely to have seizures. One paper reported that over 40% of people with Alzheimer’s had epileptic activity in their brains.

What causes Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s seizures?

It is well known that damage to the brain can mean people start having seizures. Degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s damage different parts of the brain and this is likely to be part of the reason why dementia and epilepsy sometimes occur together.

Looking specifically at epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease, researchers have found that the condition makes certain chemical proteins (amyloid and tau) build up in the brain. These proteins can make brain cells more ‘excitable’ which may make seizures more likely too.

Read more: Why do people get epilepsy?

Are seizures an early sign of dementia?

Until relatively recently, doctors believed that seizures were a late stage symptom of dementia. However, new research suggests seizures could in fact be an early sign of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. 

If this is true, having epileptic seizures diagnosed as soon as possible could help doctors to spot and prepare for dementia too. And this is why it is important to speak to a doctor right away if you or someone you know appears to be having seizures.

What do Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease seizures look like?

If you or or a loved one seem to be having seizures, it is very important to visit your doctor or a neurologist who can do tests and learn more about your symptoms. Dementia seizures may appear as:

  • Tonic-clonic seizures: This kind of seizure is most easy to recognize. The person having a seizure will go stiff, fall over and shake on the ground. Learn more here
  • Focal seizures: This kind of seizure might be harder to spot. The person having seizures may stop and stare and become confused. They may also behave in unusual ways, such as smacking their lips, twitching or making strange noises. Learn more here

Treatment for people with dementia and epilepsy

Researchers are still learning about the brain and how seizures and Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia affect one another. 

When it comes to treatment, there is good news. Studies have found that epilepsy drugs help reduce seizure activity in people with dementia and this boosts the quality of life.

By learning about the symptoms of epilepsy and diagnosing Alzheimer’s diseases and seizures early, you and your doctor can develop a treatment plan and be best prepared for the future. 

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