It is possible to develop epilepsy as an adult. Stroke, infections of the central nervous system, and head injury may all lead to changes in brain function that cause epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a disorder where abnormal electrical activity in the brain causes seizures.

Adult-onset epilepsy is the term for epilepsy that develops during adulthood.

This article looks at the possible causes of adult-onset epilepsy, common types of seizures in adults, how to manage seizures, and outlook.

A woman with a blurry fave representing adult onset epilepsy. -2Share on Pinterest
Jarusha Brown/Stocksy

It is possible to develop epilepsy in later life.

Healthcare professionals diagnose a person with epilepsy if they have experienced two or more seizures that are not due to a temporary medical condition such as high fever, low blood sugar, or withdrawal from alcohol or drugs.

Epilepsy in adults may be due to a medical condition that affects brain function.

The most common cause of epilepsy in adults is stroke. In some cases, there is no known cause for adult-onset epilepsy.

Epilepsy in adults is usually due to:

Other causes of adult-onset epilepsy include autoimmune encephalitis, when the body’s cells attack the brain and cause inflammation, and neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Common types of seizures in adults include the following.

Focal seizures

Focal, or partial, seizures only affect one area in the brain. Focal seizures include simple focal seizures and complex focal seizures.

Simple focal seizures may cause a change in smell or taste or cause people to twitch.

Complex focal seizures can cause people to feel dazed or confused, and they may not be able to respond to directions or answer questions for a few minutes.

Medical professionals no longer use the terms “simple” and “complex” to explain seizures — however, some people may still use the terms.

In the past, simple seizures meant seizures where the patient remained aware. Complex seizures meant seizures that caused a change in or loss of awareness.

Currently, medical professionals only categorize seizures into focal or generalized onset.

Generalized seizures

Generalized seizures occur in both sides of the brain and include absence seizures and tonic-clonic seizures.

Absence seizures may cause people to stare into space or blink rapidly. They are most common in children.

Tonic-clonic seizures can cause people to have muscle spasms, cry out, or fall. In tonic-clonic seizures, patients always lose consciousness.

Focal to bilateral tonic-clonic seizures start with a focal seizure, which begins in one area of the brain and spreads to other parts. Medical professionals previously called these “secondary generalized seizures.”

To help a person having a seizure, people can take the following steps:

  • stay with the person until the seizure is over and they are fully alert again
  • time the seizure
  • ease the person to the floor so they do not fall
  • make sure the person is away from any sharp objects or hard surfaces
  • avoid holding a person down or trying to control their movements
  • gently turn a person onto their side to prevent choking
  • avoid placing anything into their mouth
  • place something soft under their head, such as a folded jumper
  • remove any eyeglasses and loosen anything tight around their neck
  • remain calm and comfort the person having the seizure
  • allow the person space and keep any surrounding people calm
  • after the seizure, explain what happened
  • make sure the person can get home safely by calling a taxi or someone who can give them a lift home

People do not need to give CPR for a seizure. People should also avoid giving any food or drink to a person until after the seizure and they are fully alert again.

If a seizure lasts for longer than 5 minutes, or if a person injures themselves during a seizure, someone should call 911.

If it is the first time a person has had a seizure, they will need to inform a healthcare professional.

Although there is currently no cure for epilepsy, treatments can help to effectively manage the condition.

Antiseizure medications are highly effective in preventing seizures from occurring and allow most people, around 7 in 10, to be able to completely control seizures.

If medication is not effective, surgery may be an option. Surgery removes the section of the brain that is responsible for seizures.

In epilepsy that is resistant to medications, surgery may be the best treatment option for completely controlling seizures.

Other treatment options for epilepsy include:

  • diet, such as a ketogenic diet, which may reduce seizures in people who are suitable for this type of treatment
  • vagus nerve stimulation, which uses an implant to send electrical signals to the vagus nerve
  • deep brain stimulation, which uses an implant to send electrical currents to the brain
  • responsive neurostimulation, which is an implant in the brain that delivers an electrical pulse to prevent a seizure before it starts

Current research is also investigating new potential treatments for epilepsy.

This section answers some common questions about adult-onset epilepsy.

Can you develop epilepsy in your 20s?

People can develop epilepsy at any age. However, an epilepsy diagnosis is more common in people under the age of 20 or over the age of 65.

Epilepsy in children is more commonly due to genetic causes, birth complications, infections during childhood, or accidents. Often, there is no known cause of childhood epilepsy.

Older adults are more likely to develop epilepsy due to an increase in risk factors, such as:

  • head injuries from falls
  • diseases that affect how the brain functions, such as dementia
  • stroke
  • brain tumor

What are the warning signs of a seizure in adults?

Warning signs of a seizure in adults include the following:

  • staring or rapid blinking
  • change in feeling or sensation
  • feeling dazed or confused
  • change in awareness or consciousness, which may also occur with rhythmic nodding of the head
  • loss of bowel or bladder control
  • changes in body movements, such as muscle spasms or stiffening
  • changes in breathing

People may develop epilepsy in adulthood.

This can occur due to a brain tumor, head injury, stroke, or an infection of the central nervous system. In some cases, there is no known cause of adult-onset epilepsy.

Treatments for epilepsy may help people effectively manage the condition, including antiseizure medications or surgery.