Getting dizzy after standing for a few minutes may be a warning sign of a serious health problem. While the occasional spell is common and negligible, experts warn that more frequent occurrences could mean an underlying neurological issue.

According to a new study from Harvard Medical School, the cause of the dizziness is most likely orthostatic hypotension (OH) or the sudden drop in blood pressure due to positional changes and other factors.

Dr. Christopher Gibbons and Dr. Roy Freeman's study aimed to better understand delayed orthostatic hypotension (DOH), which occurs after more than three minutes of standing up. The condition becomes increasingly common among older adults.

"This is a person who's been fine standing, and gradually gets worse and worse and worse, until they have to sit down," Gibbons said. He added that about 5 to 10 percent of adults develop OH by the time they reach 60 or 70 years old.

The study findings suggest that the blood pressure drop may be an indication that the nervous system is not functioning as optimally as it should.

"This [delayed orthostatic hypotension] suggests the nervous system is failing and isn't maintaining blood pressure while you're standing," Gibbons elaborated.

The researchers reviewed the data on 230 patients who had autonomic testing from 2002 and 2003 as well as 10 years worth of followup data on 165 patients. Among the patients with followup data, 48 started with DOH, 42 had OH and the remainder did not have OH-related disorders.

In the followup group, the patients who initially had DOH had a 10-year mortality rate of 29 percent, while those who had OH had up to a 64 percent rate. Among the OH patients, 35 percent developed neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, within the 10-year followup period.

"Our findings suggest that more than half of people with the delayed form of this condition will go on to develop the more serious form of this disease," Gibbons said. "This is also the first study to date suggesting the disease is a milder form of the more common and serious disorder."

Gibbons, however, added that experiencing periodic dizziness does not automatically mean that a person has OH. There are many other causes behind these episodes, including medication use, environmental factors, dehydration and other medical conditions.

"Patients should not be scared that if their blood pressure drops due to medication or dehydration that they are at a high risk of mortality," said Dr. Paul Wright of the North Shore University Hospital, New York. He adds that the study should be extended to a larger sample group to gain more perspective on the subject.

Photo: Nicholas Canup | Flickr

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