Vascular dementia, also called Vascular Cognitive impairment, is a diagnosis that describes the decline in cognitive abilities often caused by a stroke or mini-stroke (TIA).
Vascular dementia is widely considered the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for 10% of dementia cases. Vascular dementia often presents with similar symptoms as Alzheimer’s disease and can coexist with Alzheimer’s.
However, these two diseases have separate causes and disease progressions. Unlike Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia often progresses in a “stepwise” fashion, with plateaus in symptoms for a time followed by declines.
Symptoms of vascular dementia or vascular cognitive impairment can be varied depending on the severity and location of the damage to the brain. Symptoms may be most easily noticed in those who have suffered a major stroke. For others, symptoms may include difficulty with social situations, memory impairment, impaired planning/judgement, or uncontrolled laughing/crying. The incidence of vascular dementia rises for patients with risk factors such as hypertension, cardiac disease, diabetes and smoking.
In order to diagnose vascular dementia, a neurologist looks for signs of cognitive impairment severe enough to cause a significant deterioration in function, and rules out other causes for these impairments- such as drug interactions, infections or injury. High blood pressure is a strong risk factor for vascular dementia and should be assessed and treated if it is high. Because depression is often common in this disease, questions regarding these symptoms are important. Brain imaging can also be used to assess for evidence of damage to the brain and assess brain functioning. A family member or friend who can provide information as to the patient’s degree of memory loss and functional impairment is vital to accurate diagnosis and planning as well.
For those diagnosed with vascular dementia and their families, future planning such as a living will and/or power of attorney is very important. Understanding that functioning and memory can change suddenly for those with this disease can help families and caregivers to cope and prepare adequately.
For more information or resources regarding vascular dementia, contact the Alzheimer’s Association at 800.272.3900 or visit alz.org/dayton.
Alzheimer’s UK- What is Vascular Dementia?
University of California San Francisco- Vascular Dementia