Vascular dementia is a general term describing problems with reasoning, planning, judgment, memory and other thought processes caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to your brain.
You can develop vascular dementia after a stroke blocks an artery in your brain, but strokes don't always cause vascular dementia. Whether a stroke affects your thinking and reasoning depends on your stroke's severity and location. Vascular dementia also can result from other conditions that damage blood vessels and reduce circulation, depriving your brain of vital oxygen and nutrients.
Factors that increase your risk of heart disease and stroke — including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking — also raise your vascular dementia risk. Controlling these factors can help lower your chances of developing vascular dementia.
Vascular dementia symptoms vary, depending on the part of your brain where blood flow is impaired. Symptoms often overlap with those of other types of dementia, especially Alzheimer's disease. Vascular dementia symptoms may be most clear-cut when they occur suddenly following a stroke. When changes in your thinking and reasoning seem clearly linked to a stroke, this condition is sometimes called "post-stroke dementia."
Another characteristic pattern of vascular dementia symptoms sometimes follows a series of strokes or mini strokes. In this pattern, changes in your thought processes occur in noticeable "steps" downward from your previous level of function, unlike the gradual, steady decline that typically occurs in Alzheimer's disease.
But vascular dementia can also develop very gradually, just like Alzheimer's disease. What's more, vascular dementia and Alzheimer's often occur together. Studies show that people with dementia symptoms usually have brain changes typical of more than one type. Some doctors call this condition "mixed dementia."
Vascular dementia symptoms include:
Vascular dementia results from conditions that damage your brain's blood vessels, reducing their ability to supply your brain with the large amounts of nutrition and oxygen it needs to perform thought processes effectively.
Common conditions that may lead to vascular dementia include:
In general, the risk factors for vascular dementia are the same as those for heart disease and stroke. Risk factors for vascular dementia include:
Preparing for your appointment
If you've had a stroke, your first conversations about your symptoms and recovery will likely take place in the hospital. If you're noticing milder symptoms, you may decide you want to talk to your doctor about changes in your thought processes, or you may seek care at the urging of a family member who arranges your appointment and goes with you.
You may start by seeing your primary care doctor, but he or she is likely to refer you to a doctor who specializes in disorders of the brain and nervous system (neurologist).
Because appointments can be brief, and there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment. Here's some information to help you get ready and know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Because time with your doctor is limited, writing down a list of questions will help you make the most of your appointment. If you're seeing your doctor regarding concerns about vascular dementia, some questions to ask include:
In addition to the questions you've prepared ahead of time, don't hesitate to ask your doctor to clarify anything you don't understand.
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Doctors can nearly always determine that you have dementia, but there's no specific test that confirms you have vascular dementia. Your doctor will make a judgment about whether vascular dementia is the most likely cause of your symptoms based on the information you provide, your medical history for stroke or disorders of the heart and blood vessels, and results of tests that may help clarify your diagnosis.
He or she may also order tests to rule out other potential causes of memory loss and confusion, such as:
Brain-imaging procedures your doctor may recommend to help diagnose vascular dementia include:
Neurospychological tests sometimes show characteristic results for people with different types of dementia. People with vascular dementia may have an exceptionally hard time analyzing a problem and developing an effective solution. They may be less likely to have trouble learning new information and remembering than are people with Alzheimer's unless their blood vessel problems affect specific brain regions important for memory. However, there's often a lot of overlap in exam results for people with vascular dementia and people who have Alzheimer's disease.
Treatments and drugs
Controlling underlying conditions and risk factors
Doctors may prescribe one or both types of the following Alzheimer's drugs:
Coping and support
People with any type of dementia and their caregivers — whether it's vascular dementia or Alzheimer's disease — experience a mixture of emotions, including confusion, frustration, anger, fear, uncertainty, grief and depression.
Caring for someone with dementia
Caring for the caregiver
The health of your brain's blood vessels is closely linked to your overall heart health. Taking these steps to keep your heart healthy may also help reduce your risk of vascular dementia:
Last Updated: 2011-04-30
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