The research shows that such avoidable deaths “remain common and have not declined over time, despite advances in treatment,” , clinical research fellow, Muir Maxwell Epilepsy Center, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, told a press briefing.
The findings were presented at the Congress of the European Academy of Neurology (EAN) 2020, which is being conducted as a virtual/online meeting because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As his PhD dissertation, Dr. Mbizvo is investigating the rates, causes, and risk factors for epilepsy-related deaths and the percentage of these that are potentially avoidable.
The National Health Service of Scotland contains various linked administrative data sets. Each resident of Scotland has a unique identifier that facilitates investigations across the health system.
Dr. Mbizvo investigated adults and adolescents aged 16 years and older who died because of epilepsy during 2009-2016. He compared this group to patients of similar age who were living with epilepsy to identify risk factors that might help focus resources. During the study period, 2,149 epilepsy-related deaths occurred. Nearly 60% involved at least one seizure-related hospital admission.
Of the patients who died because of epilepsy, 24% were seen in an outpatient neurologic clinic. “So there’s this heavy burden of admissions not translating to neurology follow-up,” said Dr. Mbizvo.
During the study period, there was no reduction in mortality “despite advances in medical care,” said Dr. Mbizvo.
Younger people with epilepsy were found to be more likely to die. The standardized mortality rate was 6/100,000 (95% confidence interval, 2.3-9.7) among those aged 16-24 years. By contrast, among those aged 45-54 years, the rate was 2/100,000 (95% CI, 1.1-2.1); it was lower in older age groups.
“The overall mortality is not reducing; people are dying young, and neurologists are really not getting involved,” Dr. Mbizvo said.
Among the almost 600 deaths of those aged 16-54 years, 58% were from Scotland’s “most deprived areas,” he noted.
From medical records and antiepileptic drug (AED) use, Dr. Mbizvo looked for risk factors that may have contributed to these epilepsy-related deaths. The most common cause of death in the group aged 16- 54 years was sudden unexpected death in epilepsy (SUDEP), followed by respiratory disorders, such as aspiration pneumonia.
“We think this should be avoidable, in the sense that these are people that could perhaps be targeted early with, for example, antibiotics,” said Dr. Mbizvo.
The next most common cause of death was circulatory disease, largely cardiac arrest.
“The idea is that electroexcitation – an abnormality in the brain – and the heart are related, and maybe that’s translating to a risk of death,” said Dr. Mbizvo.
Mental and behavioral disorders, largely alcohol related, were the next most common cause of death.
“This is a group I worry about,” said Dr. Mbizvo. “I think they’re seen in the acute services and discharged as alcohol-withdrawal seizures. It’s possible that some have epilepsy and are never referred to a neurologist, and this may translate into increased mortality.”
Dr. Mbizvo is analyzing how these results differ from what is seen in the general population of Scotland among those younger than 75 years.
The top cause of death in the general population is neoplasm of the lungs. Aspiration of the lung is near the top for those who died from epilepsy, but the mechanisms leading to lung-related deaths in these populations may differ, said Dr. Mbizvo.
By applying coding methodology from fields unrelated to epilepsy where this approach has been tried, he determined that 78% of epilepsy-related deaths among those younger than 55 years were potentially avoidable.
“As a method, this is still in its infancy and will require validation, but we see this as a start,” Dr. Mbizvo said.
He provided examples from medical records that illustrate avoidable factors that could contribute to death. These included cases in which patients were discharged with the wrong dose of AED and in which patients drowned in a bath after having not been appropriately educated about seizure safety.