You stand up, and suddenly your head is spinning—you freeze for a moment or grab onto something to hold yourself steady.
After a few seconds or minutes, the feeling passes and you get on with your business. Everything seems OK.
But everything is not necessarily OK. Those moments of light-headedness signal that your blood pressure suddenly dropped when you stood up. You might have what’s called orthostatic hypotension (OH). If you have OH often and/or severely (bouts during which you almost pass out or do pass out), it can lead to some major consequences.
According to a new study, those with OH are at higher risk for something very serious—heart failure.
OH is defined by a blood pressure drop upon standing of at least 20 mmHg systolic (the top number in a blood pressure reading) or 10 mmHg diastolic (the bottom number). OH may come and go—or may last forever—depending on what’s causing it, which could be dehydration…standing up quickly after eating…blood loss…certain medications (such as those for high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and erectile dysfunction)…certain diseases (such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, Parkinson’s and thyroid problems)…prolonged bed rest…crossing your legs while sitting…and other factors. The chance of experiencing OH rises as you age.
So how is this related to something as dangerous as heart failure, where the heart can’t pump enough blood?
The new study, from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, found that people between the ages of 45 and 64 with OH had a 54% greater risk of developing heart failure. This finding held true even after controlling for cardiac risk factors such as diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease and medications that can cause blood pressure drops.
So how do you know whether you have OH and, if you do, what you should do about it? When I spoke with study coauthor Christine DeLong Jones, MD, a preventive medicine resident at the university, her first piece of advice was to drink plenty of water, because dehydration is one of the most common (and reversible) causes of OH. If you’re hydrated and light-headedness continues, she said, then it’s reasonable to ask your doctor about having a series of blood pressure measurements to test for OH.
If you have OH, work with your doctor to figure out the cause, said Dr. Jones. For example, you may be taking a medication that’s causing the problem and your doctor may be able to prescribe a different drug or an alternative treatment.
But if the cause is something that you can’t change (such as a disease) and OH persists, Dr. Jones said to consider it a red flag that you must act to prevent or treat other conditions that can contribute to heart failure—including coronary heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. In that case, think of your episodes of light-headedness as a friendly warning—much friendlier, at least, than heart failure! To keep your heart as healthy as possible, check out these nutrition tips from sister publication Bottom Line Health.
Source: Christine DeLong Jones, MD, preventive medicine resident, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her study was published in March in Hypertension.