What you need to know about vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.

People with vascular dementia have problems with reasoning, judgment, and memory. These symptoms can appear suddenly or they could be mild at first and gradually worsen.

It can be challenging to diagnose because it can occur together with Alzheimer’s and the symptoms can vary from case to case.

We explain what vascular dementia is, common symptoms, how it compares to Alzheimer’s, risk factors, and treatment options.

What is vascular dementia?

what is vascular dementia

Vascular dementia is a condition that causes a decline in cognitive function.

It’s caused by a blockage or lack of blood flow to the brain – often from stroke or transient ischemic attack (TIA). Lack of oxygen and blood can damage the brain, even in a short period of time.

Vascular dementia symptoms

Vascular dementia symptoms can vary. It depends on which part of the brain is affected and how serious the damage is.

Generally, symptoms include:

Sudden symptoms after a stroke
Vascular dementia symptoms are usually the most obvious after a major stroke. Symptoms that suddenly get worse often signal another stroke.

Post-stroke changes include:

These cognitive changes often happen along with physical stroke symptoms, like sudden headache, difficulty walking, or numbness or paralysis on one side of the face or body.

Gradual symptoms from mini-strokes or TIA
Multiple small strokes or other conditions that affect blood vessels often cause gradual changes in cognitive function.

Early signs include:

  • Impaired planning and judgment
  • Trouble finding the right words
  • Difficulty in social situations
  • Uncontrolled laughing and crying
  • Reduced ability to pay attention

Vascular dementia vs Alzheimer’s

Vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the same disease, but it’s possible to have both at the same time.

In fact, the most common form of mixed dementia (more than one dementia at the same time) is vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s. When that happens, the person could have symptoms of both types of dementia.

Here’s how they’re different.

Vascular dementia:

  • Is caused by stroke or TIA
  • Symptoms usually progress in noticeable stages
  • Impaired coordination or balance usually happens early on
  • Related to vascular problems like high cholesterol and high blood pressure

Alzheimer’s:

  • No known cause
  • Symptoms typically worsen at a slow, steady pace
  • Impaired coordination or balance usually happens late in the disease
  • Risk increases with age

Vascular dementia risk factors

A high risk for stroke is closely associated with risk for vascular dementia. 25 – 33% of strokes are thought to cause some amount of dementia.

Vascular dementia is more common in people aged 60 to 75 and is more likely to occur in men than women.

Common vascular dementia risk factors include:

Vascular dementia treatment and life expectancy

There is no cure for vascular dementia, but the earlier it’s diagnosed, the better chance there is of reducing the impact and severity of symptoms.

Lifestyle changes
The goal of vascular dementia treatment is to improve the conditions that may be causing it. Lifestyle changes can help prevent further damage and slow the progression of symptoms.

Your older adult’s doctor will help create a plan to lower high blood pressure and high cholesterol. They’ll also encourage a healthier diet and regular exercise to prevent clogged arteries, heart attack, and stroke. Stopping smoking, reducing the use of alcohol, and keeping diabetes well-controlled also reduces damage from vascular problems.

Drugs to treat vascular dementia
There aren’t any FDA-approved drugs that treat symptoms of vascular dementia. But certain drugs approved to treat Alzheimer’s may help to boost memory and cognitive abilities.

Life expectancy
Like other types of dementia, vascular dementia shortens life span. But catching it early and preventing further damage is the best treatment.

If the conditions that cause vascular dementia aren’t treated, the outcome isn’t good. Vascular dementia disease progression isn’t always visible. Someone may seem fine without treatment…until another stroke takes away more brain function.

Without treatment, vascular dementia usually causes death from stroke, heart disease, or infection.