Drug treatment of epilepsy in elderly people: focus on valproic Acid

Linda J Stephen
Drugs & Aging 2003, 20 (2): 141-52
Despite old age being the commonest time of life to develop epilepsy, relatively little is known about the condition in later years. Antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) are the mainstay of treatment and valproic acid (VPA) has been prescribed for older patients with seizures for over 35 years. VPA is available in a variety of formulations. The drug is generally rapidly absorbed, although there are no data on the extent of oral absorption in the elderly. The volume of distribution (Vd) and elimination half-life have been compared in older and younger patients. One study reported no change in either parameter between elderly and younger patients (Vd: 0.16 vs 0.14 L/kg; elimination half-life: 15.3 vs 13.0h), the other found an increase in both for older patients (Vd: 0.19 vs 0.13 L/kg; elimination half-life 14.9 vs 7.2h). Total VPA clearance is similar in young and elderly subjects. The drug does not induce the metabolism of hepatic enzymes, but can act as a metabolic inhibitor, raising plasma concentrations of lamotrigine, phenobarbital (phenobarbitone), carbamazepine-10-11-epoxide, lorazepam, nimodipine and zidovudine. Concomitant use of VPA may also lead to an elevation in phenytoin, diazepam, warfarin, amitriptyline and chlorpromazine concentrations. A number of enzyme-inducing AEDs such as phenytoin, phenobarbital, primidone and carbamazepine can increase the clearance of VPA. Plasma concentrations of VPA may also rise when the drug is administered with felbamate, stiripentol, aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid), naproxen, phenylbutazone, isoniazid, fluoxetine and chlorpromazine. The majority of elderly patients present with partial and/or secondary generalised seizures, although a few have long-standing primary generalised seizures. Results from meta-analyses and randomised studies of patients comparing VPA with other AED monotherapies suggest that the drug is as effective as carbamazepine, phenytoin and phenobarbital in treating these seizure types. Although some of these studies recruited older patients, there have been no randomised double-blind trials examining the efficacy of VPA with other AEDs in an exclusively elderly cohort. There is no direct correlation between efficacy and plasma VPA concentrations. The majority of older patients require lower doses of AEDs than younger adults. Higher VPA doses may be needed in patients taking drugs which induce hepatic microsomal enzymes. Once-daily dosing of the controlled-release preparation can help to improve compliance and may render some frail elderly people seizure free. There is a perception that the elderly are generally more susceptible to the adverse effects of AEDs than younger adults, although there are few data to validate this claim. Dose-dependent and idiosyncratic reactions may be more frequent. Common adverse effects of VPA include gastrointestinal symptoms and tremor. Slow-dose escalation and controlled-release preparations may minimise these. In summary, VPA is a long established AED. Its broad spectrum of action and dosing schedule are favourable properties for its use in older people. To accurately establish the place of this and other AEDs in treating elderly patients with epilepsy, well designed clinical trials are urgently required in this vulnerable population.

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