Vascular Dementia Symptoms and Treatment

Having a family member suffering through dementia of any kind can be scary and frustrating, and vascular dementia is no different. Currently, the second most common type of dementia just behind Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia is caused by damage to brain tissue from a lack of blood flow.

Thanks to an increase in understanding vascular dementia and its causes, as well as recent improvements in medical treatments, vascular dementia is now more effectively prevented and treated.

The Alzheimer’s Association defines dementia as “a general term for a decline in mental ability severe enough to interfere with daily life.” Dementia includes several different symptoms caused by brain damage from a number of diseases. Most forms of dementia include memory loss, mood changes, loss of coordination and trouble with thought processes.

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Causes and Types

Dementia can develop when the brain’s vascular system gets damaged, preventing blood from reaching brain cells. This damage is often caused by strokes or by conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

There are several types of vascular dementia that could affect you or your family, and these can occur alone, together or in conjunction with Alzheimer’s disease.

Multi-Infarct Dementia

The majority of vascular dementia cases are caused by a series of strokes. These strokes, which occur when the brain’s blood supply is suddenly cut off, often cause permanent damage to brain tissue, potentially leading to multi-infarct dementia. Symptoms of strokes vary widely, depending on what part of the brain was damaged. Many small strokes may not have any symptoms at all, or symptoms that are hard to recognize as a sign of a stroke, such as a headache. Over time, however, these small strokes can cause the onset of multi-infarct dementia (MID).

If a friend or a loved one has multi-infarct dementia, you may notice that they may seem confused often, or have trouble remembering recent events. Other symptoms you may notice are difficulty in following directions, sudden mood swings and shuffling their feet when walking.

If you suspect that you or a member of your family has multi-infarct dementia, you can get an official diagnosis through a neurological exam, which may include a CT scan or MRI. MID is very similar to Alzheimer’s, and many seniors suffer from both. It typically occurs in people after age 60 and tends to affect men more than women.

Sub-Cortical Vascular Dementia

Sometimes called small vessel disease, or in some cases Binswanger’s disease, sub-cortical vascular dementia occurs when the brain’s system of small blood vessels gets damaged.

If you have a friend or loved one with sub-cortical vascular dementia, you may notice signs like stumbling, difficulty speaking and trouble making facial expressions. Incontinence is another common symptom. These symptoms may appear to come and go, especially early on.

Like other forms of dementia, sub-cortical vascular dementia is diagnosed with a neurological exam, including cognitive tests and brain scans. It also strikes seniors over the age of 60 most often and may be accompanied by strokes.

Symptoms

Vascular dementia affects everyone differently. Some of the most common general symptoms include:

  • Trouble with communication
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Depression, anxiety
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion, disorientation
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations, delusions
  • Sudden changes in behavior
Treatment

All types of vascular dementia progress at varying rates, depending on the person. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to reverse the damage done to brain tissue that causes vascular dementia, but you can slow the disease’s progression with a number of different techniques, including:

  • Taking medication for heart problems, high blood pressure, stroke and other causes of vascular dementia
  • Making lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, avoiding alcohol, exercising and eating well
  • Going through rehabilitation including physical and speech therapy
Preventing Vascular Dementia

Like other forms of dementia, vascular dementia is best prevented rather than treated. There are a number of risk factors that can influence whether or not you’re likely to develop vascular dementia, and whether you should put extra effort in preventing this disease.

Because vascular dementia is caused by cardiovascular problems that affect blood flow to the brain, the greatest risk factors are conditions or activities that threaten the heart’s health. Lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking, leading a sedentary life and eating unhealthily can greatly increase the risk of damaging the cardiovascular system, and eventually causing vascular dementia. These same lifestyle choices also influence a number of conditions that contribute to vascular dementia. Consider making changes in your lifestyle and carefully following your doctor’s instructions if you have any of the following conditions:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Sleep apnea
  • Alcoholism
  • Heart disease

Because many cases of vascular dementia are caused by strokes, it is critical to respond to a stroke event as soon as possible. The National Stroke Association highly recommends recognizing the signs of a stroke and calling 911 immediately if one occurs, even if your friend or loved one seems fine almost immediately afterward. Note that long-term brain damage from a stroke can be somewhat reduced if treatment occurs within three hours of the first stroke symptom.

Acting early and remaining consistent in your efforts to mitigate any risk factors can go a long way in preventing the onset of vascular dementia, even if you or your family members have a history of cardiovascular problems. If at any point you are unsure if you, a friend or loved one may be suffering from early vascular dementia, consult with a doctor for a proper diagnosis. Most senior living facilities have special care for dementia patients, but that’s not always the case.

For more support and information, you can also look through articles from organizations like the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the Alzheimer’s Association.

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