Lightheadedness, feeling dizzy and fainting spells are some of the most alarming symptoms someone may be experiencing if they’re living with dementia.
For the most part, it’s not necessarily the dizziness that’s the main concern; it’s more the potential those frightening fainting spells have to cause injury and greater pain if they fall.
The medical term for dizzy spells that lead to fainting is called syncope and is caused by a momentary drop in either blood pressure, heart rate or blood in certain parts of the body – all things that people living with dementia are more prone to experiencing.
Does everyone with dementia have dizzy spells?
While different people experience dementia symptoms in different ways, one of the more common signs of Lewy Body Dementia (often referred to as the second most common type of dementia), is dizziness and fainting. This is since Lewy Body Dementia attacks the part of the brain that controls the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system controls a variety of essential bodily functions such as maintaining the pulse and blood pressure. When the latter dips dangerously low, it can lead to spells of dizziness and fainting.
One of the precursors of dementia has now been identified as an increase in fainting and dizzy spells – something you may have noticed in your loved one before they were diagnosed with a dementia-related illness.
A recent study carried out in the Netherlands looked at 6,000 people over a 15-year timeframe and found that people who repeatedly suffered periods of low blood pressure – otherwise known as hypotension – and associated dizziness were 4% more likely to develop dementia at a later point in life.
Could medicine be making the dizziness worse?
One of the most commonly recorded causes of dizziness and fainting in people living with dementia comes down to the medicine they’re on. Memory-related medications (the main ones are known as cholinesterase inhibitors), allow the brain to produce more of a chemical called acetylcholine. This chemical helps our brains function in many ways, and is essential for processing learning, memory, and concentration.
However, the side effects of these memory-related drugs can have an associated impact on someone’s heart rate, slowing it to a point that can cause people to feel dizzy, and even faint. A study was carried out in people who used these cholinesterase inhibitors and found that 69% of people taking them had a slowed heart rate, a huge factor in why those taking it were more prone to feeling faint.
The same study also showed that people regularly taking cholinesterase drugs were 18% more likely to experience a hip fracture as a result of a fall – a worrying statistic.
Unfortunately, it’s not only memory-related drugs that can lead to dizziness and fainting. Drugs used to treat other dementia symptoms such as psychosis, anxiety, insomnia, and depression, can all have a similar effect.
How to tell if someone is dizzy or faint with dementia
While fainting episodes can be easier to spot, symptoms of dizziness and vertigo in people who have difficulty explaining how they’re feeling can be challenging to pick up on.
So how do you know if your loved one is feeling dizzy?
Loss of balance
Are suddenly more prone to stumbling or generally look less steady on their feet?
Have they been noticeable sick? Dizziness can lead to nausea and vomiting.
Have they been audibly more unsettled, perhaps moaning, groaning or sighing more often than usual?
Has there been a noticeable change in their behaviour? Are they more fatigued, less willing to do things for themselves or napping more often?
Risks of dizziness and fainting with dementia
In the same study into memory-related medication, they also found that people taking them had an 18% higher chance of having a hip fracture. This probability rises due to the increased chances of falling as a result of dizziness and fainting episodes the drugs can bring on.
It can be deeply worrying if your loved one with dementia is prone to fainting, especially if they’re still active or living alone. Especially since falling over the age of 65 can massively increase the chances of having a serious injury which could dramatically reduce quality of life.
Give everyone more peace of mind by putting in place some measures to limit falls:
Keep in close contact
Try to check in regularly with your loved one. If you live too far away to make trips, it might be wise to ask a well-known neighbour or friend to pop their head in, to double-check everything’s ok.
A personal alarm
Depending on whether your loved one is willing and able to comprehend what it’s for, it could be useful to arrange a personal alarm. Available in wearable forms, such as a pendant on a cord around the neck, if a dizzy spell results in a fall, when they regain consciousness, they can activate the alarm and notify help.
If you think that a personal alarm may be too confusing to operate, these discreet, watch-like devices can help you keep a lookout for your loved one, without invading their privacy. For 24-hour peace of mind, the fall sensor can be worn on the wrist and alert you of any sudden fall-type motions as soon as they happen.
Since those taking some dementia-related drugs have a higher risk of severe injury from a fall, it may be worth investing in a preventative measure before anything happens. There are a few things to consider, both of which rest on the fact that your loved one is comfortable to wear them:
- Firstly, you can buy special inbuilt padded underwear, containing cushioning around the hip bones which can buffer the effects of a nasty fainting episode or general fall.
- Secondly, you can now purchase a nifty new invention called a Hip’Safe, which effectively acts as an airbag for the hips, inflating when it senses a fall-like movement and protecting the bones and their surrounding area from potentially dire consequences.
Related article: How can I help prevent falls for someone with dementia?