Study Establishes 3.4 Million Americans Have Epilepsy

September 6, 2017

Many Unaware They Have Underdiagnosed Brain Disorder, say Henry Ford Specialists

DETROIT – A new survey found that 1.2% of the U.S. population can be classified as having active epilepsy, a condition Henry Ford Health System epilepsy specialists say is underdiagnosed and undertreated.

The study released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Aug. 11 found 3.4 million – 3 million adults and 470,000 children – in the United States have epilepsy. The new data shows that the number of active epilepsy cases in U.S have increased from 2.3 million in 2010 to 3.4 million in 2015.

In the past, researchers anecdotally estimated the number of people with epilepsy based on a few random surveys. But after this survey of people in 2015, researchers can confidently estimate 1.2% of the population are affected by the condition. That’s 108,900 people in Michigan, including about 13,600 children and 95,300 adults.

Although the CDC attributed this increase to an increase in population, Henry Ford epilepsy specialists believe there is more to the story. The current number of active epilepsy cases of 10.6/1000 people in 2015 is significantly more than that of 7.4 /1000 people with active epilepsy estimated five years earlier. Henry Ford epilepsy specialists believe there could be additional factors contributing to the increased number of cases, including better recognition and diagnosis of seizures and improved survey techniques. 

The new state-specific numbers firmly establish the magnitude of epilepsy as a public health issue and the need for additional education, outreach and treatment services in Michigan, said Marianna Spanaki, M.D., Epilepsy Division Chief at Henry Ford Health System. She is concerned that these data suggest that epilepsy is underdiagnosed. Often, even medical providers do not recognize some of the more subtle signs of epilepsy, a neurological disorder caused by abnormal electrical activity in the brain, she said.

“Forgetfulness, staring off into space, loss of a sense of time: these can all be indications of small seizures,” Dr. Spanaki said. “People typically associate epilepsy with classic ‘grand mal’ seizure symptoms, where people flop uncontrollably. But the earlier we can recognize the condition’s subtle symptoms, the better we are able to control them and prevent the possibility of future problems related to epilepsy.”

New medications can prevent seizures in about 70% of cases, Dr. Spanaki said. And there are various therapies that can help the rest, including minimally invasive surgical interventions.

“Minimally invasive laser ablation is one of the more recent treatments we offer for epilepsy that has life-changing effects for patients,” said neurosurgeon Jason Schwalb, M.D., Surgical Director of the Henry Ford Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. “They go from debilitating restrictions and significant risk of injury to living a completely normal life.”

In the procedure, surgeons make tiny incisions in the skull to access the brain. Using finely tuned, highly accurate precision medicine, they target the area of the brain causing the seizures with the laser with real-time MRI monitoring. The procedure has been highly successful with few or no side effects for patients, Dr. Schwalb said.

Patient Tom Vaughan, 71, of Shelby Township, went from have about 20 to 30 seizures a month to returning to a normal life after his January 2014 ablation.

“Sometimes I didn’t even know I was having them; my wife would notice,” he said, describing the smaller seizures as “tuning out with a little dribbling.”

“I was at the point where I was thinking my life was over,” Vaughan said recently, on his way to Chicago for a family reunion. “I’m a lucky guy.”

Diagnosis of the condition is done through the Henry Ford Comprehensive Epilepsy Center. Often the first step is for patients to spend time in one of two of the center’s Epilepsy Monitoring Units, at Henry Ford Hospital or Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. There, doctors can use extended monitoring of electrical brain activity to help detect, diagnose and plan treatment for even the most complex cases.

“Henry Ford is committed to provide best care for patients with epilepsy, and improve patient awareness about the condition,” said neurologist Vibha Wasade, M.D., co-director of the Henry Ford Epilepsy Monitoring Unit. “Our epilepsy program's mission is to educate the communities we serve, emphasize the need for prompt diagnosis and help our patients find appropriate interventions.”

For more information on the Henry Ford Comprehensive Epilepsy Center, visit

Link to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study:

Link to American Epilepsy Society release:

Brenda Craig


Cookie Consent

We use cookies to improve your web experience. By using this site, you agree to our Terms of Use. Read our Internet Privacy Statement to learn what information we collect and how we use it.

Accept All Cookies