We all have moments when our memory fails us. What is that person’s name? Who was the actress in the last James Bond movie? Why am I going to the pantry? We call them “senior moments.” We think we can’t do much about them. But, while it’s true that we are not able to cure aging, or progressive neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, we can treat, and in some cases, stop many of the causes of memory problems.
Seizures: Another Cause of Memory Impairment
The things we can remedy are vitamin deficiency, hormonal/metabolic disturbances, and brain mass lesions. Today, I want to tell you about something you may not have heard of. It’s what I call an “unusual suspect” that causes memory difficulties. We can treat it and even stop it completely from progressing. It is called a “daydreaming” seizure or a focal seizure, known in the medical literature as complex partial seizures.
When most of us hear the word “seizure,” we picture convulsions, screams, falls, and unnatural arching. Although this is the most recognized presentation of an epileptic seizure, in actuality any transient, stereotypical, and repetitive occurrence of out-of-place sensations, movements, or body changes should raise concern for abnormal electrical activity in the brain – or epileptic seizure.
A Sign to Watch for: Daydreaming or “Staring Spells”
What I want you to watch for are staring spells that can be mistaken for daydreaming. These spells are different from daydreaming. The person is not aware of or responsive to her environment. She may experience a sensation of smells that are not present, a sensation of stomach raising, a sensation of “strange” familiarity (so called déjà vu), or a sensation of anxiety or impeding doom. When you see a person in a staring spell, you may notice lip smacking, tongue tasting, or hand/clothes-fixing movements that occur without much purpose or reason. It is important to recognize that these events are potentially epileptic seizures – and that they disrupt memory.
Impairment of memory is not limited to the time of a single spell, but is has a cumulative effect on our ability to remember things. The more spells we have, the worse our ability to use our memory to its full capacity. I compare it to writing an email on a computer without back-up power and then frequently unplugging the machine. Not only will our writing will be lost, but eventually our computer hardware will be damaged.
How We Treat and Prevent Seizures
So, what can we do about it? The first thing is to recognize a seizure. If you see or experience some of the signs we just talked about, talk to your physician. Talk to him or her about performance of attention-sensitive tasks such as driving, and running appropriate tests, such as brain imaging and electroencephalogram (a test where a machine records electrical activity of the brain from the scalp surface). If a seizure disorder is diagnosed, an appropriate antiepileptic medication should be considered.
There are also activities each one of us can do to prevent or decrease frequency of seizures. We can change our habits for the better. Good sleep, regular and healthy meals, adequate hydration, avoidance of excessive alcohol intake (each person has different levels of tolerance and for some even a small amount can be a seizure-provoking event), being careful when we are sick (febrile illness increases chance of breakthrough seizures), and adherence to prescribed antiepileptic medication(s). A note on medication adherence: if there are adverse effects associated with the prescribed antiepileptic medication, you should discuss it with your physician.
Following these strategies, one may decrease the number of “daydreaming”/staring spells and, by doing so, one may stop or slow the progression of memory decline and even improve memory ability. It is worthwhile to note that the positive lifestyle changes improve memory and cognition regardless of whether seizures are present or not.
Danilo Vitorovic, MD, is a neurologist at The University of Vermont Medical Center and an associate professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He has clinical expertise in epilepsy. His goal for his patients is seizure freedom and he is excited to work with them toward that goal.