Special Populations Affected by Narcolepsy

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

Narcolepsy is a fairly rare condition, with just 135,000 to 200,000 people diagnosed in the U.S. As with any chronic health condition, narcolepsy is more common in some groups of people than in others. And, it may also need to be treated differently depending on a person’s age and other health conditions.1

Narcolepsy in families

About 10 percent of people who have narcolepsy with cataplexy have a close relative with symptoms. However, most narcolepsy is spontaneous. This means the person has no family history of the condtion.1

Narcolepsy in pregnancy

Women with narcolepsy who get pregnant need to be carefully treated. A small study from Europe found that women with narcolepsy are more likely to develop gestational diabetes, gain more weight, and more likely to have a cesarean section. Many medications used to treat narcolepsy have not been tested in pregnant women so they may need to be stopped. It may be harder to manage their narcolepsy symptoms during pregnancy if they stop taking their medicines.2,3

Narcolepsy in children

Narcolepsy may start in childhood but is most often diagnosed in the teen years or early adulthood. The medicines used to treat narcolepsy can work differently in children. Children often need to take smaller doses, at different times, than adults. This is because children’s bodies process some drugs faster than adults. Other drugs may impact weight (up or down) or slow their growth.1,3

Narcolepsy in Parkinson’s disease

People with Parkinson’s disease sometimes develop narcolepsy-like symptoms. Doctors believe this is because Parkinson’s damages the part of the brain that controls production of a brain chemical that helps the body manage sleep. When this happens, they may be treated with the same drugs used to treat anyone with narcolepsy.4

Narcolepsy in veterans

Narcolepsy can occur in veterans who suffered a traumatic brain injury. Doctors believe this may happen when the hypothalamus, a small part deep inside the brain becomes damaged and stops producing enough orexin/hypocretin.5

Narcolepsy in the elderly

Narcolepsy is a life-long condition, but symptoms may improve with age. However, just like in childhood, narcolepsy may need to be managed differently. For example, once a person retires it may be easier to nap once or twice a day. This may lead to less need for stimulants. An older person who develops heart disease may need to avoid stimulants, antidepressants, or sodium oxybate. Glaucoma, confusion, seizures, and balance problems may force other changes to a person’s narcolepsy medicines.3

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