Vascular dementia

MRI scan of brain which is affected by vascular dementia

Vascular dementia happens when there’s a problem with the blood supply to an area of your brain.

The cells in the affected area of your brain don’t get enough oxygen or nutrients and start to die. This leads to symptoms such as concentration problems and personality changes.

What are the symptoms of vascular dementia?

The term dementia describes a set of symptoms, including memory loss. If you have vascular dementia, your early symptoms will depend on which part of your brain has been affected. This means different people can experience different symptoms. These symptoms can develop suddenly or gradually.

Although it's often associated with growing older, vascular dementia can affect people of all ages. If you're under 65 years old, this is known as 'young onset' or 'early onset' vascular dementia.

Early signs of vascular dementia include:

  • concentration problems, for example, losing interest in what’s happening around you
  • mood and personality changes, such as irritability or feeling low
  • feeling confused
  • increasing difficulty with skills, such as reading or driving
  • difficulty with decision making and planning, for example, trouble completing tasks
  • difficulty with daily activities, such as paying with money
  • difficulty with language, for example, becoming less fluent.

The condition is progressive which means it will probably get worse over time. However, research has shown that improving your lifestyle can slow down progression, so that you're able to continue to live an active life, for as long as possible.

Later signs of vascular dementia will mean that early signs worsen and may also include:

  • becoming increasingly confused and disorientated
  • memory loss and difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty remembering words or communicating
  • difficulty with balance or falling frequently
  • depression and personality changes
  • loss of bladder control.

Download or order our understanding vascular dementia booklet.

What causes vascular dementia?

Vascular dementia is caused by a lack of blood supply to your brain which causes the surrounding cells to die. The causes of a reduced blood supply to your brain include:

  1. small vessel disease – narrowing of small blood vessels deep inside your brain
  2. a stroke – where the blood supply to part of your brain is suddenly cut off, due to a blood clot or haemorrhage (a bleed)
  3. mini-strokes – known as  transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs). These can cause tiny but widespread damage over time.

What is mixed dementia?

Some people with vascular dementia may have another type of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease. This is known as mixed dementia and your doctor will treat both conditions.

How is vascular dementia linked to atrial fibrillation?A blood clot forming in the atrium due to atrial fibrillation

Atrial fibrillation (AF) is an irregular heart rhythm which increases your risk of stroke. AF can cause a blood clot to form in one of the top chambers of your heart. This can then be pumped out to your brain where it may cause a stroke. As vascular dementia often develops after a stroke, people with AF are at higher risk.

If you have AF it’s important to reduce your risk of stroke. If you have AF, you may be prescribed anticoagulant (blood thinning) medication, such as warfarin, to reduce the likelihood of clots forming.

How is vascular dementia diagnosed?

If you suspect you or a loved one may have vascular dementia, it’s important to talk to your GP as soon as possible.

Your GP will:

  • talk to you about your symptoms and medical history
  • carry out routine tests, for example, pulse and blood pressure
  • arrange blood tests
  • do a physical examination
  • do some cognitive ability tests.

Your GP may also talk to a close relative to gain further information on your daily routine and skills, with your permission. If your GP isn’t able to make a diagnosis, you might be referred to a specialist or memory clinic. You may then have a CT or MRI scan of your brain to check for any abnormalities.

Unfortunately, getting an accurate diagnosis can sometimes take time but it’s really important that you receive this in order to get the correct treatment and support. If you’re concerned about your diagnosis, or would like advice talking to healthcare professionals, call Dementia UK’s Admiral Nurse Dementia Helpline on 0800 888 6678.

Dianne was diagnosed with vascular dementia in 2012. Find out how Dianne has adapted and what she's doing to support others in her community.

What’s the treatment for vascular dementia?

Although we’re funding research to find new treatments, there's currently no cure for vascular dementia. However, there’s lots of help and support to help you to continue to live well.

Medication

You might be given medication to control high blood pressure or high cholesterol as this may have contributed to your condition.

If you have vascular dementia, medication given for Alzheimer’s disease isn’t recommended. However, you could be given this medication if you have a mixed diagnosis of vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Reducing your risk

Research has shown that improving your lifestyle can help slow down the rate at which vascular dementia progresses. By making small changes you may reduce the chance of more damage to the blood vessels in your brain.

Risk factors you can control include:Person standing on a scale

  • high blood pressure
  • high blood cholesterol
  • poorly controlled diabetes
  • smoking
  • an unhealthy diet
  • not doing enough physical activity
  • being overweight or obese
  • drinking too much alcohol.

There’s lots you can do to make changes and reduce your risk of developing heart and circulatory diseases, such as stroke and vascular dementia.

Support services

Vascular dementia is a progressive condition, so it’s likely you’ll need further support at some point. This could include:

  • Healthcare professionals – your GP, physiotherapist, occupational therapist, or a specialist dementia nurse (such as an Admiral Nurse).
  • Social services – you and your carer may be able to access support by having an assessment of your needs.
  • Charities – this might include information, emotional support or advocacy services.
  • Private care and support services – such as paid care workers or ‘meals on wheels’.

When you're diagnosed, it’s important for you and your family to discuss any help you might need, both now and in the future, taking into account your preferences. This will help you to make plans together so that you can continue to live an active life, for as long as possible.

Emotional support

If you’ve been diagnosed with vascular dementia you can continue to live well for many years. However, it's understandable to feel overwhelmed and worried. Give yourself time to let the information sink in and seek support from loved ones. You might also find it helpful to talk to someone outside your family or friendship circle, such as a counsellor.

Although there’s currently no cure for vascular dementia, your donations help fund life saving research into the vital treatments urgently needed for patients.

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Caring for someone with vascular dementia

If you’re caring for someone with vascular dementia, you may be worried for your loved one and feel concerned about the future. Because vascular dementia is a progressive condition, it’s likely that they’ll need extra care and support as time goes on. This may mean help with daily tasks, such as cooking, or emotional support.

If you’re looking after someone, it’s just as important to look after your own health and wellbeing. You might need practical or emotional support of your own, such as planned respite care and counselling. You can also seek support from charities or support services that offer information and ideas, such as disability aids.

Information and further support

There are a number of healthcare organisations and charities who can help offer information and support to people with vascular dementia and their carers.

List of helpful organisations:

Want to know more?

Order or download our publications:

Stroke - your quick guide

Stroke - your quick guide

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