Vascular dementia


What is vascular dementia?

Vascular dementia occurs when the brain’s blood supply is blocked or damaged, causing brain cells to be deprived of oxygen and die.

How does that happen? A network of blood vessels called the vascular system supplies the brain with oxygen, allowing the brain to function properly. If the vessels supplying the brain are blocked, diseased or bleeding, blood is prevented from reaching the brain. With no oxygen and nutrients, the affected cells in the brain die. This leads to stroke symptoms that may cause vascular dementia. Stroke symptoms may include paralysis and loss of speech.

Read more about stroke below.

Types of vascular dementia

Subcortical dementia is caused by small vessel disease, where the small vessels in the brain become stiff and twisted. This results in reduced blood flow to the brain.

Cerebral amyloid angiopathy happens when a protein called amyloid builds up in the brain blood vessels. Amyloid forms plaques, disrupting brain function. This often occurs with Alzheimer’s disease.


What are the symptoms of vascular dementia?

  • Changes in the ability to make decisions, plan or organize
  • Difficulties with movement, such as slow gait and poor balance

Symptoms tend to appear slowly, and specific impairments may occur in steps, where abilities deteriorate, stabilize for a time and then decline again.


How is vascular dementia diagnosed?

There is no one specific test that can diagnose vascular dementia. If vascular dementia is suspected, your doctor will likely perform a number of physical and cognitive tests.

A combination of the physical and cognitive test results, along with a detailed medical history, will provide your doctor with the evidence she or he needs to make a diagnosis.

For more information on diagnosis, check out our page: Getting a diagnosis

What are the risk factors for vascular dementia?*

Stroke

Stroke is a common cause of vascular dementia. A stroke occurs when blood flow in an artery stops, either because the artery is blocked (an ischemic stroke) or bursts (a hemorrhagic stroke). This blockage or damage means brain cells aren’t receiving oxygen and nutrients, leading to brain cell death. This may lead to vascular dementia.

Having a stroke more than doubles the risk of developing dementia. Strokes can be large or small, and can have a cumulative effect (each stroke adding further to the problem).

Can you recognize the symptoms of a stroke? Recognizing the signs of stroke and acting quickly can make a difference in recovery and in lowering the risk of dementia.

Learn the Signs of Stroke - Face, Arms, Speech, Time
The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s FAST campaign can help you recognize the signs of stroke.

The Heart and Stroke Foundation’s FAST campaign can help you recognize the signs of stroke.

Covert stroke

Covert strokes occur when a small blood vessel in the brain becomes permanently blocked. While overt strokes have recognizable symptoms such as weakness and speech difficulties, covert strokes are subtler and can occur silently without any visible symptoms.

Since covert strokes don’t cause immediate physical changes that are obvious, most people who have had this type of stroke don’t know it.

Transient ischemic attack

Transient ischemic attacks, sometimes called “warning strokes,” are caused by a small clot that briefly blocks an artery. Transient ischemic attacks and strokes have similar symptoms, but transient ischemic attacks only last a few minutes or hours and cause no lasting damage.

Transient ischemic attacks are an important warning that a more serious stroke may occur. Anyone who experiences a transient ischemic attack should seek medical help immediately.

Other risk factors

In general, treating the risk factors for stroke significantly reduces the risk of vascular dementia.

How can you lower your risk of vascular dementia? You can lower your risk of vascular dementia by managing these risk factors:

  • High blood pressure
  • Smoking
  • Physical inactivity
  • Stress
  • Sleep apnea
  • Unhealthy weight
  • Unhealthy diet
  • High cholesterol
  • Atrial fibrillation (Afib)
  • Diabetes
  • Heavy alcohol intake
  • Heavy drug abuse

High blood pressure (or hypertension) is the single most important modifiable risk factor for stroke and vascular dementia. High blood pressure can be managed through physical activity, eating well and by taking the right medication. Medications may also help control other risk factors like diabetes, cholesterol and heart disease.

By living a healthy lifestyle, vascular dementia can be prevented, delayed or slowed down.

High blood pressure (or hypertension) is the single most important modifiable risk factor for stroke and vascular dementia. High blood pressure can be managed through physical activity, eating well and by taking the right medication. Medications may also help control other risk factors like diabetes, cholesterol and heart disease.

By living a healthy lifestyle, vascular dementia can be prevented, delayed or slowed down.

For more information on the risk factors of stroke, check out these pages on the Heart and Stroke Foundation website:

For more information on risk factors other than stroke, check out our page: Risk factors


How is vascular dementia treated?

There are currently no medications that can reverse brain damage. However, medications are available to help manage some of the symptoms of vascular dementia. Check out our full brochure for more information on medications.

Also, remember the importance of making healthy lifestyle choices.


More information and resources

Important notice and disclaimer regarding the contents of this page.


*Some content in the section What are the risk factors of vascular dementia? has been adapted with permission from the Heart and Stroke Foundation’s 2016 Stroke month report Mind the Connection.


Last Updated: 08/27/2018