Watch: Living with vascular dementia
Wayne Eaton was diagnosed with dementia at the age of 59. Emily McGrath finds out how dementia affects him, and explains what vascular dementia is and how you can manage it.
“I’m 62, I’m five foot eight, I have two arms, two legs and a head, and I also have dementia. It doesn’t define me and nor should it ever do so.”
These are the words of Wayne Eaton, a former IT manager and business lecturer, who had a heart attack in 2004 at the age of 49.
At the time, he didn’t have any symptoms of dementia. But people with coronary heart disease are twice as likely to experience vascular dementia, and Wayne had high cholesterol, which can clog up the arteries carrying blood to your brain.
Symptoms of vascular dementia
“Although the changes in my brain had probably already started, it wasn’t until I was 53 that there were discernible symptoms,” says Wayne. “I didn’t feel quite comfortable in my own skin and didn’t seem to fit in my own life any more. I would use the wrong words or forget to put the right names with faces.
"I was teaching business at degree level, so being in a classroom was very difficult. I would start not being able to do very simple things, which was very frustrating – but would be able to do them the next day. I remember twiddling a ring-pull in my hand for ages, trying to work out how to open a can.
I started feeling lost in places I knew well. Things wouldn’t look how they were supposed to
“Then I started feeling lost in places I knew well. Things wouldn’t look how they were supposed to. Those sorts of things got worse and worse, and led to things like not being in the right places at the right time. I would forget to give information, and forget information I had been given.
“This caused others, and me, to get frustrated and scared. This is when I was persuaded to start getting it checked out,” he says.
At first, doctors thought Wayne’s problems might be caused by stress. He had been through a divorce and by now had left his job due to health issues, as well as grieving the loss of his mother and his son, Kevin, who died of a heart attack at the age of 28.
Wayne was eventually diagnosed with mixed dementia – vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s – in 2014, following detailed interviews and MRI scans of his brain.
Stroke and vascular dementia
Wayne (in checked shirt) with volunteers at Rochester Cathedral.
In September 2016, Wayne had a stroke, though he didn’t realise what was happening. “I was feeling dizzy and sick,” he says. “Everything seemed loud and bright and I was sweating profusely.” He spent four days in hospital and suffered some eye problems as a result of the stroke.
There is more than one way in which problems with the blood vessels of the brain can affect cognition and eventually cause dementia
Professor Philip Bath
Professor Bath, Head of Clinical Neuroscience at the University of Nottingham, explains: “Like vascular dementia, stroke is caused by problems in the blood vessels in the brain – either a clot that blocks blood supply or a burst blood vessel that causes bleeding.
"If you have a big stroke, this destroys connections within the brain that may be involved in memory and thinking. So there is more than one way in which problems with the blood vessels of the brain can affect cognition and eventually cause dementia. If you have another stroke (or a first stroke) when you already have vascular dementia, it could get suddenly worse.”
Wayne’s sense of road safety declined after his stroke. “I try to make sure I have somebody around who is aware of my condition,” he says “They have my permission to physically stop me walking in the road if needed.”
Vascular dementia also means Wayne is unable to work, and reapplying for benefits has been challenging. “I have to fight very hard every four months to prove I still have this condition, even though it isn’t going to go away,” he says.
Staying healthy when you have dementia
Wayne knows that being active is important in managing his condition, and tries to walk every day. The medications he takes for Alzheimer’s are of limited use
for vascular dementia.
Professor Bath explains: “The best treatment is prevention. Anything that reduces risk of having another stroke reduces the risk of the cognitive decline that follows. There’s a lot people can do for themselves.
My hope is to make a difference to people in future. That's why I try so hard to do as much as possible
"Studies suggest exercise is the most powerful thing you can do, done moderately three to four times a week, enough to get your heart and breathing rate up. This improves cognitive performance, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and your risk of other vascular events. You should also eat a healthy balanced diet, manage your weight, cut down on alcohol, don’t smoke and monitor your blood pressure.
“Medicines (such as statins or anticoagulants) that reduce the risk of another stroke may also reduce your risk of vascular dementia, but we need to find out more.”
Wayne leads a busy life, and does everything he can to help other people, from giving talks and training on dementia, to taking part in research. “My hope is to make a difference to people in future,” he says. “My long-term fear is that I’ll feel I didn’t do enough. That’s why I try so hard to do as much as possible.”
But overall, Wayne is feeling positive. “The life I live now is amazing,” he says. “I don’t know what life would be now if I didn’t have it, but I actually feel I live better with dementia. I haven’t yet reached retirement age, so without my diagnosis, I would still have four years sat at a desk. I now have the time to do whatever I want, whenever I want, and that’s wonderful.”