Dizziness Causes in Older Adults

In this article...
  • What do you know about dizziness causes in older adults? Find out what causes this troubling condition, what you can do about it and whether it’s serious.
Older adults do tai chi exercises

Dizziness is a common occurrence among healthy adults. Most people occasionally feel the world swim a little bit from time to time, or when external conditions cause temporary dizziness. While most of the causes of dizziness in older adults are not serious, this unpleasant feeling can be a sign of several medical conditions that require a doctor to diagnose and treat. If you are a senior who feels dizzy more often than every once in a while, or if your dizziness causes distress or doesn’t go away in a few moments, don’t delay getting medical attention. Only a physician can reliably assess your health for you.

What Causes Dizziness in Older Adults?

Dizziness can be caused by any one of a large number of conditions, from basically nothing to serious neurological issues. Very often, the unpleasant disorientation of dizziness, which is sometimes called vertigo, is caused by a disruption of the body’s sense of balance. This sense comes from the inner ear, where fluid sloshes over tiny hairs in a small organ called the cochlea. The flow of this fluid pushes the hairs around, which stimulates nerve endings and gives you your sense of which way is up. If something causes the fluid to move in a way that’s different from what your eyes see, such as if you spin around too quickly or you’ve bumped your head, the dizziness you feel can be thought of as your brain trying to reconcile a sense of motion with the stable world you can see.

Other things cause dizziness in older adults. Sometimes, the swirling feeling of vertigo is a result of inflammation of the nerves in the ear, which may be caused by a low-grade ear infection. People who have eaten bad food and gotten a mild to moderate case of food poisoning can also feel dizzy, as can people who’ve suffered a potentially serious head trauma, stroke or temporary ischemic attack, which is like a mini stroke that eventually clears up on its own.

Dizziness from moving your head in an odd way is obviously not very serious, but because some causes of vertigo are potentially life-threatening, you should never delay medical attention if you’re in doubt about the cause of your dizziness.

What Are the Signs That Dizziness Is Serious?

Dizziness is potentially a sign of serious issues when it's severe, or it persists longer than a minute or so. Multiple bouts of dizziness over a relatively short period of time, especially if you were never prone to them before, can be a sign of a serious issue.

Be aware of symptoms that occur alongside dizziness, as these can be clues to the underlying issue. If your dizziness is accompanied by severe head pain, it could be a migraine or stress headache, or it could be a sign of stroke or head trauma. Blurred vision, ringing in the ears, loss of balance and weakness in the hands or face can all be signs that something is going on that calls for immediate medical attention. If your dizziness comes with chest pain, shortness of breath, tunnel vision or a feeling of impending doom or anxiety, seek help immediately. Any one of these symptoms may accompany dizziness in older adults without necessarily being a sign of serious problems, but you can only know it’s okay after a thorough examination by a medical professional.

When Should You See a Doctor?

If you develop any of the clusters of symptoms described above, seek medical help without delay. If your dizziness is associated with pain or discharge from the ear, you might have an infection that requires antibiotics. If dizziness is interfering with your ability to eat, sleep or perform other routine activities, a doctor may be able to help you manage the symptoms and get back to normal.

Even if you have no signs of trouble other than the dizziness, it still might be a good idea to get seen by a doctor. Dizziness on its own could contribute to a fall, which is especially concerning among seniors. It's also common for people who have already suffered from a bump to the head to forget or to not notice clear signs that something is wrong. In short: Your doctor will never be mad at you for getting your dizziness checked out.

What Helps Seniors with Dizziness?

If your dizziness is mild and brief, or if you have been to a doctor and the cause is known to be nothing too serious, you might still want some kind of relief from the unpleasant feeling of vertigo. Your doctor may have prescribed medication to help you manage dizziness, but it may not provide all the relief you had hoped for. Here are some things you can try if you have occasional bouts with dizziness that you’re confident are not signs of a deeper problem. With any luck, a few of these actions could help make your dizziness go away:

  • Rest at the first sign of dizziness.
  • Get a good night’s sleep every night and nap if you feel like it in the afternoon to avoid fatigue.
  • Start an exercise program with your doctor’s advice.
  • Avoid foods you think might be associated with bouts of dizziness.
  • Limit your use of caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and other substances that sometimes cause dizziness.
  • If you have a prescription for supplemental oxygen, carry it with you and use it when you feel the need; remember to ask your doctor about increasing your recommended dose level.
  • Drink water, sport drinks, herbal tea or another non-caffeinated beverage that can help keep you hydrated; dizziness in older adults is often caused by dehydration.
  • Avoid flashing lights, loud noises and other stimuli that can aggravate your senses.

On top of these remedies, you should consider taking certain precautions to prevent falls and other hazards often caused by dizziness:

  • Hold guard rails on stairs and in bathrooms in case dizziness suddenly comes over you.
  • Consider carrying a cane or other balance aiding device when you’re having a bout of vertigo.
  • Tell loved ones about the dizzy spells, and ask your caregiver to help you when you don’t feel safe walking or doing chores
  • Invest in corner guards, floor padding, throw pillows for exposed hard surfaces and anything else that can reduce the risk of injury if dizziness ever makes you fall.