What is Vascular Dementia?

At Memory Matters, we are often asked about the different types of dementia. What is vascular dementia? And what causes it?
Vascular dementia is a type of dementia. Dementia is an umbrella term used to describe a set of symptoms caused by several progressive medical conditions. These conditions impact brain function to the point where it impacts a person’s day-to-day life.

Like other types of dementia, people living with vascular dementia will experience a decline in cognitive ability. This decline is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. The reasons behind the condition are a little more complex. Causes can range from diseased blood vessels as a result of a lifelong smoking habit, to complications following a series of strokes.

Dementia affects every person differently. It’s important to remember that receiving a vascular dementia diagnosis does not spell the end of a long and worthy existence. It is simply the next chapter in this wonderfully strange thing we call life.

What causes vascular dementia?

Cells within the brain require a constant supply of oxygen and nutrients. Oxygen and nutrients are delivered by blood vessels that can be found throughout the body. The vascular system within your brain is very delicate. If it becomes damaged, then blood cannot reach a person’s brain cells and deliver what they need to function. Without sufficient blood flow, brain cells will eventually die.

The most common types of vascular dementia are subcortical vascular dementia and stroke-related dementia. Vascular dementia can also develop from smoking, an unhealthy diet, high blood pressure and/or excessive consumption of alcohol.

Stroke-related dementia

Another term for vascular dementia is stroke-related dementia. The most second type of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia can follow a stroke. This is because during a stroke, there is little to no oxygen and nutrients going to the brain which can damage delicate brain cells and cause them to die. The most common symptoms of a stroke include…

  • Sudden loss of feeling in part of the body, particularly on one side
  • Slurred speech
  • Partial loss of vision
  • Difficulty balancing
  • Changes in mood or behaviour

Vascular dementia can also be triggered by a series of small strokes. Often these strokes are so small you might not even realise you’re having them.

It’s important to remember that just because you or a loved one has recently experienced a stroke, doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop vascular dementia. For many, a stroke can cause difficulty with cognition that will eventually improve over time. If these symptoms don’t improve, you may be experiencing the early signs of vascular dementia and should speak to your GP.

Subcortical vascular dementia

Subcortical vascular dementia, also known as small vessel disease or Binswanger’s disease, can develop from the narrowing of small blood vessels deep inside the subcortical areas of the brain. As those blood vessels narrow, the amount of blood supplied to the brain decreases which can cause brain tissue and cells to die.

Subcortical vascular dementia often manifests as cognitive slowness. For example, a person living with subcortical vascular dementia may have difficulty writing. They may also experience clumsiness and have trouble with their balance, memory and speech.

The symptoms of vascular dementia

The death of brain cells can cause a number of complications. More specifically, it can affect a person’s memory, reasoning and thinking. These three elements are also known as cognition.

Our cognitive abilities decline naturally as we age. If a person’s cognitive abilities have significantly declined, and it’s impacting their day to day life, then they may have dementia. Dementia is most common in people over the age of 65. Around 17% of people diagnosed with dementia have vascular dementia.

Dementia varies from person to person. Vascular dementia is commonly mistaken for depression, as the first most noticeable sign is often slowness in thought and changes in mood or behaviour. They may also have difficulty making plans or concentrating.

As with other types of dementia, the symptoms of vascular dementia may become more obvious over time. Symptoms may include…

  • Sudden changes in mood
  • Social withdrawal
  • Lack of enthusiasm or interest
  • Trouble with mobility, including keeping balance while standing or walking
  • Difficulty completing everyday activities such as bathing and eating
  • Forgetting everyday phrases or placenames
  • Misplacing common household objects such as car keys or reading glasses
  • Trouble concentrating or holding a conversation
  • Difficulty finding their way around in their local community and getting lost
  • Asking the same question repeatedly
  • Find problem-solving difficulty

Someone with vascular dementia may also have difficulties remembering familiar routines or finding the right word in a conversation, although these symptoms are a lot more common with Alzheimer’s disease – another common type of dementia.

It’s important to remember that dementia affects every person differently. If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with vascular dementia, you may be feeling hopeless and unsure how to proceed. A dementia diagnosis does not spell the end – it is simply a new beginning, like the next scene of a film you haven’t finished yet.

Is vascular dementia hereditary?

Vascular dementia itself is not hereditary. However, a few of the underlying health conditions that can contribute to vascular dementia are genetic. If high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease or strokes run in your family, then it’s important to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating well and exercising regularly. It’s also important to avoid regularly consuming excessive amounts of alcohol and smoking.

What is the difference between dementia and vascular dementia?

Contrary to popular belief, dementia is not a condition in its own right. Often used interchangeably with Alzheimer’s disease, the term dementia describes a set of symptoms that are caused by several progressive medical conditions. Vascular dementia is a type of dementia and is used to describe the symptoms associated with a lack of blood flow to the brain.

Is there a cure for vascular dementia?

There is no known cure for vascular dementia. However, there are some activities and therapies a person can do to slow down the symptoms associated with the condition.

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle

If you have vascular dementia as a result of high blood pressure, heart disease or other underlying health conditions, you may be able to slow the progression of dementia. The Alzheimer’s Society advises people living with vascular dementia to avoid smoking. This is because smoking long term can narrow blood vessels and damage the vascular system in your brain.

It’s also important to exercise regularly. This exercise doesn’t have to be strenuous. In fact, it can be as simple as walking to your local café or swimming regularly at your local pool. If you are on medication to treat an underlying condition, it’s also important you are taking it as well as attending regular check-ups with your GP.

For people who have recently had a stroke, maintaining a healthy lifestyle may include rehabilitation. If you have mixed dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia, your GP may also recommend medication.

Dementia support groups

If you have recently been diagnosed with vascular dementia, you may be feeling socially isolated. This is common. A person living with vascular dementia may withdraw from their friends and family. They may even push you away because they don’t want to be a burden. This self-inflicted isolation can lead to further feelings of loneliness, depression and/ hopelessness.
Following a dementia diagnosis, it’s important to stay connected within your local community.

If you’re feeling the effects of a dementia diagnosis, you might like to reach out to a local dementia support group. Your loved ones might struggle to understand your situation. However, you may find solace in others who are in a similar situation.

Cognitive stimulation therapy

While there is no cure for vascular dementia, cognitive stimulation therapy (CST) has been proven to make a huge difference. CST is a series of activities carried out over several weeks. The intention of the therapy is to improve a person’s memory and other cognitive skills. CST cannot reverse the physical effects of vascular dementia on the brain. However, it has proven to drastically reduce symptoms, with some people even showing improvement in their cognitive capabilities.

If you’re struggling in the wake of a loved one’s diagnosis, or you would simply like to learn how you can support them a little better, then you might like to enrol in a CST training course and become a CST facilitator.

Supporting someone with dementia

Do you have a loved one who was recently diagnosed with vascular dementia? You may be wondering how to best support them.

It can be difficult finding out someone close to you has dementia. However, in the wake of a diagnosis, it’s incredibly important to stay in contact with them as much as possible. It’s also important you don’t take things personally if conversations get heated. Finding out they have vascular dementia will be a frightening prospect to your loved one. It’s important to remember they are most likely stressed about their diagnosis – not angry at you.

Continue to reach out to your loved one as often as possible and treat them with affection. A small gesture as simple as holding their hand can make a huge difference in their day. Reminisce with them. If they recall something that didn’t happen or have difficultly remembering, do your best not to correct them. It’s important for your loved one to express their anxieties and communicate with you. However, keeping the atmosphere light and upbeat can also have a positive effect on their mood.
If you do find yourself caring for your loved one, it’s also important to ensure you are taking care and of yourself and meeting your own needs. Simple tasks such as cooking yourself a healthy meal or going for a walk can make a huge difference in both your life and the life of your loved one. Don’t forget, you can’t care for someone else if you’re not caring for yourself.

Getting out and about

Much like finding a dementia support group can help your loved one feel a little less alone, it’s important to get out and about in your community. Taking them out for afternoon tea or brunch at their favourite local café for example may prove to be a worthwhile activity. This activity will give your loved one a chance to get out of their house, dress up and enjoy a coffee. You might also like to take them for a drive somewhere familiar like a local park or beach.

Memory Café

You might even like to take them out to a memory café. A memory café is typically a safe, comfortable community space. People living with dementia can enjoy a slice of cake and a coffee. Also known as a dementia café, it’s essentially a secure community hub where you or your loved one will be able to chat with others in a similar situation.
Memory cafés are also often set up to trigger a person’s memory, by using fun, vintage décor and furniture from different eras. In doing so, a memory café can help you or your loved one keep active in the community, make connections and feel more confident in their ability to live well.

Vascular dementia at Memory Matters

If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with vascular dementia, you may be feeling overwhelmed and upset. It’s important to remember a dementia diagnosis doesn’t spell the end of a worthy existence surrounded by loved ones and life’s little joys – it’s simply the next chapter of a book you haven’t finished yet.

For over a decade, the team at Memory Matters have worked tirelessly to support people affected by dementia in our communities and empower them to live well. Our ethos is grounded in the intention to provide meaningful services to people living with dementia. These services also extend to loved ones and of course the carers, nurses and doctors who also provide support.

If you or a loved one have recently been diagnosed with dementia, then you may benefit from compassionate support from us. Contact the team at Memory Matters today.