What to Know About Vascular Dementia

Dementia is an impairment in a person’s ability to make decisions, think or remember, all of which interfere with everyday life. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, but there are others. 

>> Read “Understanding the Different Types of Dementia

Dementia is not a normal part of aging, but it does affect about 5.8 million Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of seniors being diagnosed with dementia is decreasing, but as Baby Boomers age, the total numbers will rise, according to the National Health and Aging Trends Study. Estimates say more than 9 million Americans could be diagnosed by 2030.

Here is what you should know about one of the variants, called vascular dementia, including what causes vascular dementia, its symptoms and its treatments.

What Causes Vascular Dementia?

Vascular dementia, sometimes called “vascular cognitive impairment,” is directly linked to impaired blood flow to the brain. This may happen suddenly after a stroke, in which a blockage damages blood vessels in the brain. It can also happen over time because of a smaller stroke, called a transient ischemic attack, or a series of sometimes undetected strokes. Narrowed brain blood vessels or a brain hemorrhage can also contribute to vascular dementia.

The loss of cognition and brain function can be affected significantly by the location, number and size of vascular changes in the brain. Experts say changes attributable to vascular dementia can range from mild to severe. About 5% to 10% of people with dementia have been diagnosed with vascular dementia.

Vascular dementia, like other types of dementia, appears to shorten life span. After a stroke, survivors who develop dementia may survive an average of three years.

Conditions that increase risk of heart disease and stroke also raise the risk of vascular dementia. These include:

  • Atherosclerosis, which is a buildup of plaque inside your arteries
  • Atrial fibrillation, an irregular or rapid heartbeat that can lead to blood clots
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • History of heart attacks, strokes or ministrokes
  • Obesity
  • Smoking 

Putting these factors under control may help lower your chances of developing vascular dementia.

>> Read “50 Essential Dementia Resources

What Are the Symptoms of Vascular Dementia?

Symptoms of vascular dementia are most apparent and dramatic after a major stroke, but they can be more subtle.

Those with vascular dementia may exhibit: 

  • Changes in personality, behavior and mood
  • Communication difficulties, such as with listening and speaking
  • Confusion
  • Depression or apathy
  • Difficulty performing tasks that used to be easy, such as paying bills
  • Disorganization
  • Disorientation
  • Forgetting current or past events
  • Getting lost on familiar routes
  • Hallucinations or delusions
  • Impaired reading and writing
  • Indecision
  • Lack of concentration
  • Loss of interest in things or people
  • Misplacing items
  • Numbness or paralysis on one side of the face or the body
  • Physical stroke symptoms, like a sudden headache
  • Poor judgment and loss of ability to perceive danger
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Sleep disruptions
  • Slowed thinking
  • Sudden or frequent urge to urinate or inability to control passing urine
  • Trouble following instructions
  • Unsteady balance and gait

This is not a complete list of possible symptoms of vascular dementia. If there is any concern about symptoms, visit a doctor for a complete evaluation. 

>> Read “When Is the Right Time to Consider Memory Care?

How Is Vascular Dementia Treated?

As of now, there are no drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat symptoms of vascular dementia specifically. However, clinical trials are indicating that medicines that can treat Alzheimer’s symptoms may be of some benefit to those with vascular dementia. These medications usually treat some of the underlying causes of the disease, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

Some stroke survivors can improve during recovery and rehabilitation as the brain generates new blood vessels and the brain responds by rerouting tasks to other parts of the brain.

It is important to prevent vascular dementia in the first place.

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What Can You Do To Prevent Vascular Dementia?

There are a number of things people can do to stave off vascular dementia. Many of these are lifestyle changes, such as diet and exercise. 

Here are some of the changes you can make to prevent vascular dementia:

Avoid Bad Habits

  • Limit alcohol use. You increase your risk of dementia if you have more than 21 drinks per week.
  • Quit smoking. Tobacco smoking can damage blood vessels in your brain as well as other places in your body.
  • Stay away from pollution. Air pollution and secondhand smoke can also be damaging to your body.

Be Active

  • Get physical exercise. In addition to all of its other benefits, exercise may help you avoid vascular dementia.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity increases your risk for health issues that may trigger vascular dementia.
  • Watch for head injuries. Take care during your exercise plan, because head injuries may trigger blood flow issues to your brain.

Eat Well

  • Pursue a well-balanced diet. Concentrate on low-fat, high-fiber foods, or consider an anti-inflammatory diet.
  • Monitor what you eat. Use your meals to keep your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar within recommended limits.

Visit Your Doctor

  • Get checked. Your doctor can monitor blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol and other health indicators.
  • Medicate as needed. Your doctor can prescribe necessary medications, such as cholesterol-lowering drugs to reduce your risk of strokes and heart attacks.

>> Read “The Complete Guide to Dementia for Caregivers

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