People who experience this feeling may be at a higher risk of dementia

Imagine yourself lounging on a lazy Sunday afternoon. The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you’ve been relaxing on your living room couch for the past two hours catching up on that book you meant to finish reading last week. Suddenly, your phone rings in the next room. The loud, unforgiving sounds being emitted from your phone shake you from your fog of weekend relaxation and you quickly jump off the couch to see who’s calling.

However, as soon as you’re on your feet a wave of dizziness crashes over you. You feel light-headed for about 30 seconds, and your vision may even darken momentarily. 

This feeling, medically referred to as orthostatic hypotension, is a relatively common phenomenon that many people report feeling from time to time. Usually, though, the disorientation fades within a matter of seconds to minutes. While most people don’t give these momentary dizzy spells a second thought, a new study has found these incidents may foretell a more serious condition in the future.

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco say those who experience dizziness after standing up may be at a higher risk of developing dementia years down the road.

As alluded to by the condition’s name (orthostatic hypotension), the dizziness brought on at these moments is due to a sudden drop in blood pressure. 

When it comes to science, though, things are rarely simple, and this situation is no different. The link between dementia and orthostatic hypotension was only noted among people who experience a drop in their systolic blood pressure after standing up quickly. For reference, systolic blood pressure refers to the amount of pressure in one’s arteries while their heart is beating.

Both diastolic blood pressure (pressure within arteries in between heartbeats) and overall blood pressure readings were not linked to dementia.

“People’s blood pressure when they move from sitting to standing should be monitored,” explains study author Laure Rouch, Pharm.D., Ph.D., from the UCSF, in a release. “It’s possible that controlling these blood pressure drops could be a promising way to help preserve people’s thinking and memory skills as they age.”

For this research, “systolic orthostatic hypotension” was considered a reduction of at least 15 mmHg upon standing up.

How did the study’s authors come to these specific conclusions? An extensive, long-term observation project including over 2,000 people. To start, a group of 2,131 older adults with no signs of dementia (average age: 73 years old) had their orthostatic blood pressure taken. Then, each person met with researchers again periodically (one, three, and five years later) for subsequent blood pressure readings as they stood up from a seated position. 

By the end of those five years, it was determined that 15% of the participant group were prone to overall orthostatic hypotension, 9% experienced systolic orthostatic hypotension specifically, and another 6% only suffered from diastolic orthostatic hypotension.

Next, over the following 12 years, researchers looked to see which participants ended up developing dementia. In all, 22% (462 people) of the participant group were diagnosed with dementia.

When researchers looked for blood pressure patterns among those who developed dementia, they quickly noticed that people who experienced systolic orthostatic hypotension after standing had a much higher likelihood of developing dementia. Among the 192 study participants who suffered systolic blood pressure drops after standing up, 50 (26%) were diagnosed with dementia. In comparison, only 21% of all other study subjects received a dementia diagnosis.

After adjusting for other potential dementia risk factors (diabetes, smoking habits, alcohol use), the study’s authors concluded that participants with systolic orthostatic hypotension were 37% more likely to develop dementia. 

It’s also worth mentioning that the consistency of these measurements over time seems to play a role here as well. Those whose systolic blood pressure readings varied more from yearly measurement to yearly measurement were also found to be at a higher risk of dementia.

Ultimately, the research team says their findings do not illustrate a cause and effect relationship. They’re not saying that feeling dizzy after standing up flat out leads to dementia, but as far as they can tell, there are definitely multiple indicators of an association. 

More research is required to refine these results and provide greater clarity. For instance, future studies may want to investigate if dizziness after standing up quickly is associated equally with all forms of dementia or more so for specific variations like Alzheimer’s. 

The full study can be found here, published in Neurology.