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Brigham and Women’s Hospital

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Current Cigarette Smokers at Increased Risk of Seizures

Cigarettes increase risk of seizures, while moderate caffeine or alcohol use was found to have no association with seizures.

Boston, MA, December 13, 2009 --( Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) have found that there is a significant risk of seizure for individuals who currently smoke cigarettes but long-term, moderate intake of caffeine or alcohol does not increase the chance of having a seizure or developing epilepsy. This is the first prospective study to examine the potential risks associated with cigarette smoking, caffeine intake, and alcohol consumption as they independently relate to epilepsy. These findings appear online on November 18 in Epilepsia.

Epilepsy is a neurological condition characterized by repeated unprovoked seizures where electrical disturbances in the brain cause sudden, involuntary changes in body movements (convulsions and muscle spasms) and sensory awareness. Approximately 2.5 million Americans are affected by epilepsy with 150,000 new cases diagnosed this year alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC further estimates that epilepsy accounts for $15.5 billion in medical costs and lost earnings. Single seizures or those provoked by alcohol withdrawal or other cause are even more common, occurring in up to 10% of the population.

The researchers used data obtained from the Nurses’ Health Study II, a group of 116,608 female registered nurses, aged 25-42 years old who returned mailed questionnaires on their lifestyle and medical history including epilepsy and seizure activity. In the analysis for cigarette smoking, researchers accrued 246 cases among 116,363 participants. For the analyses of caffeine intake, there were 201 cases among 105,941 participants, and for the alcohol consumption analyses, 198 cases among 104,934 participants. The data used in this study were obtained from 1989 through May 31, 2005.

After adjusting for stroke, brain tumor, hypertension and other potential confounding factors, researchers observed a significant association between current cigarette smoking and risk of seizure. “Our analysis showed risk of seizure was significantly higher for current smokers, but not related to the amount of cigarettes smoked daily,” said Barbara Dworetzky, MD, Department of Neurology Department at BWH. “It does appear, however, that the number of years of smoking does increase seizure risk.” Risk of epilepsy was modestly elevated with both past and current smoking, but not statistically significant.

The analysis of caffeine consumption showed that a long-term average intake of greater than 400 mg of caffeine/day (two or more cups of coffee) compared with less than 200 mg/day was not associated with greater risk of seizures or epilepsy. Researchers also found no trend of increasing seizure or epilepsy risk with increasing caffeine consumption.

Further results indicate that risk of seizures or epilepsy was not significantly different between moderate alcohol drinkers and alcohol abstainers. Study authors did not find that heavy alcohol consumption was associated with risk of seizure or epilepsy.

The participants for this study were comprised primarily of Caucasian women who had better health knowledge and access to healthcare than women in the general population. “Given the composition of the study group, our findings may not apply to men, younger or older populations, groups with lower socioeconomic status or lower attained education, or populations with higher percentages of minorities,” advised Dr. Dworetzky. The authors suggest that further studies are needed to increase knowledge of modifiable risk factors to prevent seizures and epilepsy.

About Brigham and Women's Hospital:
Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) is a 777-bed nonprofit teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School and a founding member of Partners HealthCare, an integrated health care delivery network. In July of 2008, the hospital opened the Carl J. and Ruth Shapiro Cardiovascular Center, the most advanced center of its kind. BWH is committed to excellence in patient care with expertise in virtually every specialty of medicine and surgery. The BWH medical preeminence dates back to 1832, and today that rich history in clinical care is coupled with its national leadership in quality improvement and patient safety initiatives and its dedication to educating and training the next generation of health care professionals. Through investigation and discovery conducted at its Biomedical Research Institute (BRI), BWH is an international leader in basic, clinical and translational research on human diseases, involving more than 860 physician-investigators and renowned biomedical scientists and faculty supported by more than $416 M in funding. BWH is also home to major landmark epidemiologic population studies, including the Nurses' and Physicians' Health Studies and the Women's Health Initiative. For more information about BWH, please visit

Contact Information
Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Suzanne Benz
(617) 534-1604
75 Francis Street
Boston, MA 02115 USA

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