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Common Causes of Sudden Dizziness in Seniors

Dizziness is a common symptom. Most of us describe any uneasy feeling or symptom as dizziness, ranging from sleepiness to lightheadedness and vertigo. However, dizziness is quite a specific symptom. It is a feeling very similar to lightheadedness where one feels that they will faint and sometimes a person may in fact faint shortly thereafter. Dizziness is a fairly common symptom in seniors so much so that caregivers sometimes pass it off as psychosomatic. However, dizziness should be considered as a serious symptom and investigated by a medical professional.

Reasons for Dizziness

There are many reasons why a person may feel dizziness. It is a common symptom of many diseases and disorders. In the seniors, who have no apparent disease, the most common causes of dizziness are related to cardiovascular conditions, glucose metabolism problems and respiratory or blood oxygenation problems. It can be related to some underlying disease (pathological) or due to the use of medication (iatrogenic).

Dizziness largely stems from inadequate oxygen or glucose supply to the brain thereby affecting its function. Since the brain is one of the most sensitive tissues in the body, responding to even minor alterations in oxygen and glucose levels, dizziness is one of the early warning signs. However, there are various other causes of dizziness and should the more common causes be excluded, the symptom should be investigated further.

The Heart and Blood Vessels

The heart is responsible for pumping blood throughout the body which is carried by the blood vessels. When there is a problem with heart function, sufficient blood may not reach every part of the body. The same applies to problems with the blood vessels and particularly the arteries when it is narrowed. Therefore sufficient oxygen may not reach the brain.

This can be seen with or just before a heart attack, stroke, in heart failure, bradycardia (low heart rate), hypotension (low blood pressure), hypertension (high blood pressure) and carotid artery narrowing among other cardiovascular conditions. Dizziness is often present in episodes or is mild for prolonged periods of time and suddenly worsens. When episodic, a person may have no dizziness or symptoms in between attacks.

Blood Glucose Levels

Impaired regulation of the blood glucose levels can mean that the brain is not receiving sufficient glucose. Sometimes the blood glucose levels may be too high but dizziness may not always be experienced in these instances. It is when the blood glucose levels drop too low (hypoglycemia) that dizziness occurs. One common cause that is not related to a disease is improper eating habits and inadequate nutrition.

In terms of disease, dizziness due to hypoglycemia is more common in diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes). It is a condition marked by high blood glucose levels but in the elderly, as the condition worsens and response to medication fluctuates, hypoglycemia may occur. Sometimes the incorrect use of diabetes medication can also lead to hypoglycemia and therefore dizziness.

Airways, Lungs and Blood

Sometimes the heart functions properly but the blood oxygen levels itself is low. It may arise with inadequate air flow through the airways, problems with oxygenation at the lungs or reduced capacity of the blood to carry oxygen. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, pneumonia and anemia are some of the common conditions where blood oxygenation is hampered.

Even with heart’s best efforts, the blood oxygen levels are insufficient to supply the brain and dizziness ensues. Usually dizziness in these settings is not sudden. It is either constant or gradually arises as a person requires more oxygen with increased physical activity. However, even rapid or deeper breathing does not relieve the symptoms until oxygen is administrated.


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