What Is Vascular Dementia?
Vascular dementia is the second-most diagnosed form of dementia after Alzheimer’s. It’s often diagnosed after a stroke, as cognitive function is impaired due to inadequate blood flow in the brain. Strokes affect the blood vessels in the brain to varying degrees, so many of the symptoms associated with vascular dementia range from mild to severe. For this reason, experts also refer to this form of dementia as “vascular cognitive impairment.”
Vascular Dementia Symptoms and Diagnosis
Experts have identified 7 stages of vascular dementia:
- Stages 1-3 are so mild that a dementia diagnosis is often overlooked
- Stage 4 marks early-stage dementia and is characterized by moderate cognitive decline
- During stages 5-7, symptoms become more severe, eventually requiring the person who has been diagnosed to receive 24-hour care
If you believe that your loved one might have undiagnosed vascular dementia, there are signs and symptoms to look for to help with an eventual diagnosis. Vascular dementia symptoms vary greatly, depending on the severity of the damage to the blood vessels in the brain. The symptoms can sometimes go unnoticed if the stroke is mild, but typical signs of post-stroke brain changes include:
- Trouble speaking or understanding speech
- Vision loss
The symptoms tend to be most prominent after experiencing a major stroke. More severe and noticeable symptoms include:
- Impaired planning and judgment
- Uncontrolled laughing or crying
- Declined attention span
- Difficulty finding the right words
- Impaired function in social situations
Due to the fact that vascular dementia and stroke often go hand-in-hand, it might go undiagnosed after a stroke. If your loved one has experienced a stroke, most experts recommend professional screenings in order to determine a proper diagnosis. These screenings typically include tests that assess memory, thinking and reasoning skills.
In addition to screening for cognitive changes, the physician attending to your loved one will also:
- Ask about family history
- Evaluate daily function
- Perform a neurological exam to check the nerves and reflexes
- Check coordination and balance
- Run blood work
- Request an MRI
Vascular Dementia Risk Factors and Prevention
Similar to Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia is often associated with old age. Unlike Alzheimer’s, however, the risk factors are also closely related to the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, and include:
- Age: According to the American Stroke Association, the chance of having a stroke “doubles for each decade of life after age 55.”
- Family History: If your parent, grandparent or sibling has experienced cardiovascular issues, there is an increased chance that you will also be at risk for having a heart attack or stroke.
- Gender: The American Stroke Association reports that each year women have more strokes than men. This puts women at a higher risk for developing vascular dementia.
- Personal History: If you have a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or have already had a minor stroke, you are more likely to experience a severe stroke, which can lead to vascular dementia.
While many of these risk factors cannot be changed, there are certain lifestyle changes you can implement in order to reduce the likelihood of developing vascular dementia, including:
- Stop Smoking: Smoking cigarettes and tobacco products have been proven to damage blood vessels and increase the risk for vascular diseases. Along with the other health benefits associated with quitting a smoking habit, it also will reduce your risk of having a stroke.
- Diet & Exercise: Making conscious choices to eat a balanced and nutritious diet when paired with at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise each day (yes, even walking will help), can have a big impact on keeping you healthier longer.
- Keep Blood Pressure, Blood Sugar and Cholesterol in Check: Under a physician’s care, it is possible to manage high blood pressure and cholesterol as well as high or low blood sugar levels. Whether through diet, exercise or prescription medication, maintaining healthy levels across the board can help prevent vascular dementia.
Once you receive a diagnosis, there are unfortunately no current FDA-approved drugs to keep vascular dementia at bay, so it is recommended that you work closely with your physician to help postpone any further decline.
Additional Resources for People Living With Vascular Dementia
To learn more about vascular dementia, check out some of these resources:
- The National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging offers resources on vascular dementia as part of their Alzheimer’s Disease Education and Referral Center.
- The Mayo Clinic gives you access to both easy-to-digest and in-depth information, and also provides resources for coping and support after a diagnosis.
- The Alzheimer’s Association provides information and phone numbers for a 24/7 helpline and local support groups near you.
Find a Sunrise memory care community close to home to receive quality vascular dementia care services.