For most of us, when we hear the term “dementia,” we think of Alzheimer’s disease. However, if you have heart disease or risk factors for heart disease, there’s another type of dementia that should be on your radar.
“People are not as familiar with vascular dementia, but it is the second most common cause of dementia in the U.S. and Europe, and it’s the number one cause in Asia,” says clinical neuropsychologist Carol Manning, PhD, ABPP-CN, director of the UVA Memory and Aging Care Clinic.
As its name suggests, vascular dementia can be attributed to problems with the vascular system or blood supply. Specifically, vessels that are narrowed or blocked limit the flow of blood to the brain, which can damage or destroy brain cells.
The symptoms of vascular dementia will vary depending on where cell damage occurs within the brain. However, the most common symptoms include:
- Loss of executive cognitive abilities, such as planning skills
- Unsteady gait
- Difficulty concentrating
Patients with vascular dementia experience a step-wise decline. They may have a sudden change or drop in ability, which will continue for an extended period until another drop occurs, explains Manning. “The progression of Alzheimer’s is more gradual and predictable,” she says. “With vascular dementia, a patient’s decline varies based on his individual risk factors and whether he has another vascular event.”
Are You at Risk?
Like Alzheimer’s disease, you’re at greater risk for vascular dementia as you age. That risk is multiplied if you are male, African American, a smoker and/or have the following risk factors:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Atrial fibrillation
- History of heart attack or stroke
Manning points out that, although many who have had a stroke are likely to have vascular dementia, you don’t have to have a stroke to experience this cognitive decline. Also important to note: Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia can occur in tandem. “People often have what is known as ‘mixed dementia,’ a combination of the two,” says Manning. “If you have one, you are at greater risk for the other.”
Good for the Heart, Good for the Brain
The key to preventing vascular dementia: think heart smarts. That’s because all of those lifestyle changes you adopt to manage your heart disease risk factors also lower your risk for vascular dementia.
“If it’s good for the heart, it’s good for the brain,” says Manning. “It’s important to quit smoking, control your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, and be sure you’re getting aerobic exercise, which helps stave off both Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia.”
While there’s no reversing the damage done to brain cells affected by vascular dementia, healthy habits can help prevent future decline. “Currently there are no medications for preventing vascular dementia, but we can do a good job of containing risk factors and treating symptoms that would make it worse,” says Manning.
If you or someone you love is at risk for vascular dementia and/or is experiencing symptoms of the disease, contact the UVA Memory and Aging Care Clinic. A skilled team of specialists will conduct a multi-step evaluation, including a neurological exam, neuropsychological testing and brain imaging, to rule out other conditions that may cause dementia-like symptoms (e.g., hypothyroidism) and confirm a vascular dementia diagnosis.