Dear Doctor K: What is vascular dementia? Can it be prevented?
Dear Reader: The term "dementia" describes a serious impairment of mental function. It may include memory loss, confusion, personality changes and the dwindling ability to perform everyday activities. Alzheimer's disease is the most common type of dementia. The second most common is vascular dementia.
Vascular dementia results when blood vessels don't deliver enough oxygen to the brain. There may be atherosclerosis in the arteries that block blood flow. High blood pressure may cause the arteries to narrow and increase the amount of atherosclerosis. Sometimes this leads to a major stroke. Such strokes can cause a person to suddenly lose the ability to move a part of their body, to talk, to understand speech, to feel or to see. After such a major stroke, dementia can occur.
Multiple smaller strokes can occur, as well. They can be so small, and produce such mild symptoms, that a person isn't even aware they happened. Slowly, they can degrade mental function and cause dementia. Multiple small strokes sometimes are discovered by brain scans (such as CT and MRI scans) performed to diagnose the cause of mental impairment.
Symptoms of vascular dementia can look just like Alzheimer's disease. The person may get confused. Speech may slur. Thinking may become less sharp. But symptoms do vary. Depending on what area of the brain is affected, memory may not even be impaired. Instead, other problems may appear, such as difficulties calculating numbers.
Once vascular dementia develops, treatment options are limited. Doctors sometimes prescribe drugs used for Alzheimer's disease, but they are less effective with vascular dementia.
That is why prevention is key. What is bad for the heart is also bad for the brain. The same steps you take to prevent heart attacks also reduce your risk of strokes and vascular dementia. They even reduce your risk of Alzheimer's disease.