It is estimated that about 17% of people diagnosed as having dementia are diagnosed with vascular dementia, making it the 2nd most common type.
Vascular dementia tends to worsen over time, and can cause severe difficulties in carrying out day-to-day activities. It is not uncommon for people with vascular dementia to end up needing specialist live-in care, or having to move into a care home.
This guide will help you to understand what vascular dementia is, what causes it, symptoms to look out for and how it can be treated.
What is vascular dementia?
Vascular dementia is a type of dementia caused by a problem with blood flow to the brain. The lack of blood flow to the brain causes cells in the brain to die, which leads to reduced functionality. Vascular dementia is a broad term given to the conditions which happen as a result of this.
What causes vascular dementia?
A common cause of vascular dementia is repeated mini-strokes. The brain’s blood supply can be affected by small blood clots (mini-strokes) which stop oxygen getting to the brain tissue. These are sometimes referred to as Transient Ischaemic Attacks, or TIAs. Damage can also be caused if arteries become blocked, or if blood vessels within the brain burst (known as a brain haemorrhage).
After a TIA takes place, there is sometimes a small recovery period, though this might only be temporary if brain cells have been damaged by a lack of oxygen. This pattern is sometimes referred to as ‘stepwise progression’.
Underlying health problems such as high blood pressure, obesity or diabetes can increase the risk of TIAs, which can cause vascular dementia. TIAs do not, however, inevitably lead to vascular dementia.
What are the symptoms of vascular dementia?
Most types of dementia have similar symptoms, but there are some symptoms that are more common in certain types. Vascular dementia is most closely associated with slowness of thought. Its symptoms can be however, similar to those of Alzheimer’s disease.
The symptoms of vascular dementia can vary depending on which part of the brain has been damaged. The combination of symptoms can make it more difficult for people with vascular dementia to carry out everyday tasks as their condition worsens.
Symptoms of early-stage vascular dementia
Slowness of thought
The symptom most closely associated with vascular dementia is slowness of thought. This makes it take longer to process and act on information.
A symptom of vascular dementia is difficulty with concentration. You may notice this from your relative being unable to focus on a conversation or being distracted by things easily.
Mood swings and low mood
It is common for people with vascular dementia to experience changes in mood. This can include seeming very down or depressed, or feeling apathetic.
Difficulty walking and balancing
A symptom of later vascular dementia is difficulty walking and achieving balance.
Symptoms of late-stage vascular dementia
Severe slowness of thought and confusion
Slowness of thought, tends to worsen as the condition develops. People with late-stage vascular dementia are likely to have very slow processing skills, and become confused easily.
Lapses in memory and difficulty with language
As with most forms of dementia, difficulty with memory recall is a symptom of vascular dementia. You may notice for example, a person struggling to recall words. Problems with memory and language are not as common in people with vascular dementia as they are in people with Alzheimer's disease.
Loss of bladder control
Loss of bladder control (incontinence) is a symptom of late-stage vascular dementia.
Severe personality changes and depression
As vascular dementa develops, it becomes more common for people to have severe personality changes, including becoming aggressive. They may also suffer from depression, agitation and frequent mood swings.
Severe mobility problems, including falls
People with late-stage vascular dementia often struggle to walk at all, and are prone to falls. Physiotherapy is often prescribed, but many people will need round-the-clock care.
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How is vascular dementia diagnosed?
There isn’t a set test for making a diagnosis of vascular dementia. The Doctor will consider medical history and symptoms, and might request an MRI, CT, or SPECT scan to look for signs of dementia and any possible damage to the brain’s blood vessels.
It is the identification of damage to the blood vessels that will allow a medical professional to identify the form of dementia as being vascular dementia.
Can vascular dementia be treated?
There is no cure for vascular dementia, though there are treatments which can help slow it down.
Treatment for vascular dementia focuses on the slowing down the speed at which brain cells are lost. This might include cutting down on or quitting smoking, exercising, tackling obesity and lack of exercise and other ‘lifestyle’ factors which carry a higher risk of causing vascular dementia.
People with vascular dementia may also be offered treatments to help them manage their condition. For example, physiotherapy to help deal with walking difficulties, or psychological activities to help with memory and task-completing. The NHS advises that most people living with vascular dementia will during later stages likely need home-based help.
Frequently asked questions about vascular dementia
How long do people with vascular dementia normally live after diagnosis?
On average, a person will live another 5 years from the point at which they begin to show symptoms of vascular dementia. The life expectancy with vascular dementia varies according to an individual's other health factors.
What is the difference between vascular dementia and Alzheimer's?
Vascular dementia is different to Alzheimer's, as vascualar dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. People with Alzheimer's dementia is caused by build-up of proteins in the brain which interfere with transmission of messages.
Can vascular dementia be caused by a stroke?
Yes, vascular dementia can be caused by a stroke, or a series of mini-strokes.
Why is it called 'vascular dementia'?
Blood is transported to the cells of the brain through the vascular system. Vascular dementia is caused by damage to the vascular system, hence the name.