Neurology Journal

Underestimation of sudden deaths among patients with seizures and epilepsy

Orrin Devinsky, MD, Daniel Friedman, MD, Jocelyn Y. Cheng, MD, Ellen Moffatt, MD, Anthony Kim, MD and Zian H. Tseng, MD, MAS

Neurology Published online before print August 2, 2017

Objective: To determine the definite and potential frequency of seizures and epilepsy as a cause of death (COD) and how often this goes unrecognized.

Methods: Prospective determination of seizures or epilepsy and final COD for individuals aged 18–90 years with out-of-hospital sudden cardiac deaths (SCDs) from the population-based San Francisco POST SCD Study. We compared prospective seizure or epilepsy diagnosis and final COD as adjudicated by a multidisciplinary committee (pathologists, electrophysiologists, and a vascular neurologist) vs retrospective adjudication by 2 epileptologists with expertise in seizure-related mortality.

Results: Of 541 SCDs identified during the 37-month study period (mean age 62.8 years, 69% men), 525 (97%) were autopsied; 39/525 (7.4%) had seizures or epilepsy (mean age: 58 years, range: 27–92; 67% men), comprising 17% of 231 nonarrhythmic sudden deaths. The multidisciplinary team identified 15 cases of epilepsy, 6 sudden unexpected deaths in epilepsy (SUDEPs), and no deaths related to acute symptomatic seizures. The epileptologists identified 25 cases of epilepsy and 8 definite SUDEPs, 10 possible SUDEPs, and 5 potential cases of acute symptomatic seizures as a COD.

Conclusions: Among the 25 patients identified with epilepsy by the epileptologists, they found definite or possible SUDEP in 72% (18/25) vs 24% (6/25) by the multidisciplinary group (6/15 cases they identified with epilepsy). The epileptologists identified acute symptomatic seizures as a potential COD in 5/14 patients with alcohol-related seizures. Epilepsy is underdiagnosed among decedents. Among patients with seizures and epilepsy who die suddenly, seizures and SUDEP often go unrecognized as a potential or definite COD.