Vertigo Can Intensify as we Age, but Recovery Is the Same as for Younger People

Learn why older people suffer more from vertigo and how recovery works the same - no matter what age.

By Benjamin PlackettMar 7, 2024 10:30 AM
older man with vertigo
(Credit: 9nong/Shutterstock)


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Vertigo is more than just feeling dizzy. It is a symptom characterized by a sensation of spinning or a feeling of motion when no actual movement occurs. It often manifests as a perception that either the individual or their surroundings are spinning or tilting, leading to a sense of disorientation and imbalance. All of this is in addition to feeling dizzy.  

“First, it is important to outline the differences between vertigo and dizziness. While these words are often used interchangeably, they describe different sensations,” writes Mindy Zenke, an instructor in otorhinolaryngology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science. “Dizziness is the feeling of being lightheaded, foggy, or unsteady. Vertigo, which is less common than dizziness, is an overall spinning sensation.”

It can be a debilitating and disorienting experience, but what causes vertigo, and why does it intensify with age? 

What Causes Vertigo? 

Vertigo can be caused by various underlying conditions, primarily within the inner ear, but problems with the central nervous system can also contribute to the feeling. It is usually caused when the tiny crystals in your inner ear — which are essential for you to sense linear acceleration and gravity for the purpose of maintaining bodily balance — become dislodged from their usual position.

With inner ear disorders, the brain often receives erroneous signals from the inner ear that don’t match up with the reality of what the eyes and sensory nerves are detecting. Vertigo is the result of the brain trying to work through that confusion and figure out what is actually going on.

In addition to severe spinning, vertigo may be accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, sweating, and difficulty maintaining balance. 

Read More: The Room Suddenly Started Spinning, But This Was No Ordinary Case of Vertigo

How Vertigo Affects Older People

(Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock)

Axer Hubertus, a neurologist at the Center for Vertigo and Dizziness at Jena University Hospital in Germany, says that most of his patients are between 41 and 65 years old.

“Our data showed that the duration of dizziness episodes increased in the older population. Older patients suffered about 15 percent more often from daily dizziness complaints than younger patients,” says Hubertus.

There is a well-established body of evidence to back this up, showing that older patients with vertigo bear the brunt of severe symptoms. Studies have suggested that this is likely down to the inner ear tissues degrading with age, particularly the crystals that are so important for balance.

Read More: What Is Tinnitus: It's Causes, Effects and Brain Connections

Vertigo Recovery

There is, however, some good news for older vertigo sufferers. In a 2021 paper published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, researchers from Hasselt University and the University of Antwerp in Belgium pooled the data from 16 separate studies to investigate how different age groups respond to treatment. They concluded that the rate of complete recovery in older adults was akin to that of younger adults.

But Zenke warns that vertigo needs proper treatment and not quick fixes. One common misconception, she writes, is that antihistamines will take care of the problem. 

“It works to block the signals to the brain that cause these symptoms. However, if you have recurring vertigo or dizziness, taking antihistamines is not a good long-term solution," says Hubertus. "Meclizine can make you feel drowsy, which results in many people falling asleep until the episodes are over. In this situation, the medication covers the symptoms but does not treat the condition.”

Instead, more thorough remedies and input from qualified medical professionals are what’s needed. Firstly, there are several tests that healthcare providers can do to officially diagnose vertigo — such as the Fukunda-Unterberger test, where your doctor will have you walk for 30 seconds with your eyes closed. If you rotate or lean to one side, then it could indicate that you have a disorder in the inner ear that can lead to vertigo.

Once a diagnosis has been made, there is a wide range of different treatment options, including medication, rehab exercises, or, in very rare cases, surgery.

Read More: Why Do Some People Get Motion Sick And Others Don't?

Frequently Asked Questions About Vertigo

How Long Does Vertigo Last?

According to Harvard Medical School, vertigo flare-ups can last anywhere from minutes to months, varying significantly depending on the cause of the vertigo. Attacks may recur periodically for many individuals.

How To Tell Which Ear Is Causing Vertigo?

To identify which ear is causing vertigo, you should observe your symptoms in relation to your body movements. If you become dizzy with specific movements, like rolling over to one side in bed, the ear on the side you roll towards when the dizziness occurs is likely the affected one. For example, if you feel dizzy every time you roll to your left, it indicates that the left ear has loose calcium crystals causing the vertigo.

Can Stress Cause Vertigo?

Yes, stress can potentially cause vertigo. Stress and anxiety are commonly observed alongside vestibular dysfunction, and vestibular symptoms like dizziness and balance loss are prevalent in patients with anxiety disorders. The relationship between stress and the vestibular system, while complex and not fully understood, involves both direct and indirect effects of stress hormones on vestibular function and compensation.

Is Vertigo Hereditary?

Yes, vertigo can be hereditary, especially in cases involving familial vertigo syndromes, genetic deafness syndromes with vertigo, and certain neurological disorders. Research has identified susceptibility loci and mutations, indicating genetic heterogeneity among these syndromes. This hereditary aspect distinguishes familial vertigo from other common, non-genetic causes of vertigo.

Is Vertigo Dangerous?

Yes, vertigo can be dangerous as it impairs balance, which may predispose patients to injuries after discharge from the emergency department. Research shows patients visiting the emergency department for acute peripheral vertigo are at a higher risk of new injuries for up to a year following their visit.

This article is not offering medical advice and should be used for informational purposes only.

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