Vascular Dementia

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One of the most common types of dementia in older adults, vascular dementia (VaD) refers to a subtle, progressive decline of memory and other cognitive function, such as thinking, learning, remembering, organization skills and complex visual processing. VaD is caused by a chronic, reduced blood flow in the brain. Normally, the brain cells receive an ample supply of blood, which is delivered through a network of blood vessels called the vascular system.

Males and African Americans are at an increased risk of developing the disease.

VaD may be caused by stroke, in which the blood supply to the brain becomes blocked, resulting in permanent brain damage. VaD caused by a single stroke is called single-infarct dementia. The condition can also be caused by a series of small, often unnoticeable strokes called multi-infarct dementia. Damage to tiny blood vessels that lie deep in the brain may also lead to a type of VaD known as sub-cortical vascular dementia. VaD may also occur with Alzheimer's disease, which causes similar symptoms, such as memory loss.

Vascular dementia can occur suddenly or progress slowly over time. At times, people with VaD experience long periods without any noticeable changes, or even improvements. However, if another stroke occurs, their symptoms may progress rapidly.

VaD risk factors include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Alcoholism

It is important that these conditions are diagnosed and treated promptly as a way to prevent VaD.

The condition often occurs with Alzheimer's disease, which further complicates its progression. VaD causes similar symptoms to those associated with Alzheimer's disease (AD), such as memory loss. However, memory problems caused by VaD are usually easier to overcome with cues and reminders.

Common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty with organization and solving complex problems
  • Slowed thinking
  • Distraction or "absent mindedness"
  • Difficulty retrieving words from memory
  • Walking with rapid, shuffling steps
  • Speech difficulties
  • Difficulty following instructions

Other symptoms may include:

  • Mood and behavior changes, such as depression, irritability or apathy
  • Hallucinations or delusions, which may be very distressing to the patient and their caregiver
  • Balance and movement problems
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Symptoms of Parkinson's disease, such as tremors

Currently, there is no cure for vascular dementia. Treatments are designed to prevent and control risk factors. Treating these conditions greatly reduces the risk of developing dementia.