A Complete Guide to Vascular Dementia: What You Need to Know

Vascular Dementia

As the second most common type of dementia, vascular dementia results in a significant decline in an individual's thinking ability. This condition can cause problems with balance, speech, or memory. Similar to many other forms of dementia, the changes can begin mildly and then progressively worsen or sometimes the onset of symptoms happen suddenly. 

Vascular dementia can develop following a stroke that blocks arteries in the brain, but strokes do not always cause vascular dementia. The manner in which the stroke affects your reasoning and thinking depends on the location and severity of the episode. In addition to stroke, vascular dementia can be caused by conditions that reduce circulation and damage blood vessels — depriving the brain of vital nutrients and oxygen. Continue reading to learn more about vascular dementia. 

What Are the Symptoms of Vascular Dementia? 

The actual symptoms of vascular dementia can vary based on the part of the brain affected. The severity of the symptoms can vary as well based on the amount of time the brain was deprived of blood and oxygen. Unfortunately, many vascular dementia symptoms can overlap with other types of dementia, and most symptoms are not noticed easily. In either case, some of the most common vascular dementia symptoms include:

  • An unsteady gait
  • Memory problems and confusion problems
  • Being easily upset or agitated
  • Problems focusing or paying attention
  • The need to frequently urinate
  • Complications controlling urination
  • Reduced ability to organize actions or thoughts
  • Complications deciding what to do next
  • Apathy or depression

Post-Stroke Dementia 

The symptoms of vascular dementia tend to be most clearly defined when they suddenly occur after a stroke. When changes in reasoning or thinking seem to be clearly related to a stroke, the condition can be called post-stroke dementia. Changes in an individual's thought process may occur in definable steps that are noticeably lower than the individual's previous function level — unlike the steady, gradual decline that commonly happens in those who suffer from Alzheimer's disease. 

At the same time, vascular dementia can occur with the gradual onset of symptoms — like Alzheimer's disease. Additionally, Alzheimer's disease and vascular disease can occur together, proving dementias to be complicated and diagnosis difficult. 

What Causes Vascular Dementia?

This type of dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain due to damaged or diseased blood vessels. For your brain to function properly and be healthy, there needs to be a regular and constant supply of blood transporting nutrients and oxygen. The blood is delivered to your brain through a vast network of vessels known as the vascular system. If your brain's vascular system is damaged — blocked or leaking — the blood will no longer reach the brain cells, which will cause them to eventually die. 

As brain cells die, it can cause complications with reasoning, thinking, and memory. These three elements together make up cognition; and once the cognitive problems become bad enough, it will begin to have a substantial impact on the individual's daily life and evolve into vascular dementia. There are two common conditions that may cause vascular dementia. 

Chronically or Narrowed Damaged Blood Vessels 

Any ailment that causes long-term damage or narrows the blood vessels in the brain can contribute to vascular dementia. Common conditions include the normal wear and tear associated with aging, diabetes, high blood pressure, brain hemorrhage, and atherosclerosis — the abnormal aging of blood vessels. 

Stroke Blocking a Brain Artery

Most strokes result in a blocked brain artery and can cause symptoms that may include vascular dementia. However, some strokes may not result in any noticeable symptoms, but will still increase your risk for vascular dementia. Whether it's an apparent or a silent stroke, the risk for vascular dementia increases with the number of strokes. In fact, multi-infarct dementia is a type of vascular dementia that involves several strokes. 

What Are the Vascular Dementia Risk Factors? 

One of the biggest risk factors for vascular dementia is age. The majority of people with the condition will begin to have symptoms after the age of 65, and the risk is substantially higher for those in their 80s and 90s. Considering vascular dementia is the result of a problem with blood flow to the brain, hardened arteries is a common risk factor. 

When plaque and cholesterol deposits build up inside the arteries, it can reduce flood flow, which will increase the likelihood of a stroke or heart attack. And both of these conditions will cut blood flow to the brain. Other risk factors for vascular dementia include:

  • Obesity - Being overweight is commonly regarded as a risk factor for vascular diseases in general. 
  • Smoking - Smoking causes direct damage to your blood vessels by increasing the likelihood of developing vascular dementia and other circulatory diseases. 
  • High Cholesterol - High levels of the "bad" cholesterol (LDL) are associated with heightened risk of vascular dementia. 
  • High blood pressure - Consistent high blood pressure places additional stress on all blood vessels, including the ones in the brain. 
  • Diabetes - When you have high glucose levels, it can damage blood vessels in your body. And when this damage occurs in the brain, it will increase your risk of vascular dementia and stroke. 

In addition, certain conditions like lupus, abnormal heart rhythm, and diabetes can all impact the way flood flows through your body and the brain. 

Contact Long Island Alzheimer's & Dementia Center

Previously known as the Long Island Alzheimer's Foundation, the Long Island Alzheimers and Dementia Center offers a full range of services and solutions for people living with dementia and their families. We are proud to offer services for all stages and serve all forms of dementia, as well as offer programs for caregivers such as support groups, trusted referrals and in-home respite care. To learn more about our hands-on programs and services, call (516) 767-6856.