At first blush, Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy may appear to be nothing alike. The former occurs in older people and involves memory issues and other cognitive problems; the latter is characterized by seizures and affects people of all ages.
But the two conditions overlap in many ways. Both can involve problems with spatial memory and navigation, lowered glucose metabolism, cellular death and degeneration in the brain’s temporal lobe, and damage to the hippocampus.
Like people with Alzheimer’s disease, people with epilepsy can experience memory loss or confusion. As part of an aura, they may hear or see things that aren’t there. When older adults display these symptoms, they may be misdiagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, when in fact they are having (or just had) a seizure. In older adults without a history of epilepsy, seizures are often nonconvulsive: The person may simply stop and stare for a few moments or become confused.
“The parallels between epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease are quite striking,” said Andrew J. Cole, professor of neurology at Harvard University and head of the epilepsy group at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It’s surprising there hasn’t been more collaboration between the Alzheimer’s and epilepsy communities.”
The conditions also appear to be associated. People with Alzheimer’s disease have a high risk of developing seizures—more than 80 times the risk of people who don’t have Alzheimer’s.