Dementia is an umbrella term for a range of conditions caused by progressive brain decline. The symptoms of dementia often overlap so it can be tricky to identify the specific type of dementia a person has. Memory loss is common across many forms of dementia so establishing the specific type can be a fiendishly difficult task.
Memory loss does not show up in the early stages of all forms of dementia, however.
Memory loss is common in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, for example, but is not usually the main early symptom of vascular dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Society.
Vascular dementia is a common type of dementia caused by reduced blood flow to the brain – it’s estimated to affect around 150,000 people in the UK.
As the Alzheimer’s Society explains, one of the most common cognitive symptoms in the early stages of vascular dementia are problems concentrating, such as short periods of sudden confusion.
Other early warning signs include:
- Problems with planning or organising, making decisions or solving problems
- Difficulties following a series of steps (eg cooking a meal)
- Slower speed of thought
A person in the early stages of vascular dementia may also have difficulties with:
- Memory – problems recalling recent events (often mild)
- Language – eg speech may become less fluent
- Visuospatial skills – problems perceiving objects in three dimensions.
Vascular dementia causes changes to your mood or behaviour, such as depression, adds the NHS.
Am I at risk?
As the health body explains, Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain, which damages and eventually kills brain cells.
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This is usually due to:
- Narrowing of the small blood vessels deep inside the brain, known as subcortical vascular dementia or small vessel disease
- A stroke (where the blood supply to part of the brain is suddenly cut off, usually because of a blood clot), called post-stroke dementia or single-infarct dementia
- Lots of “mini strokes” (also called transient ischaemic attacks or TIAs) that cause tiny but widespread damage to the brain, known as multi-infarct dementia
The role your heart health plays in determining your risk of vascular dementia was highlighted at an annual meeting of the American Geriatric Society in Washington, D.C.
According to the study, people with cardiovascular disease have an elevated risk of developing dementia, including both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.
The study, by Anne B. Newman, M.D., M.P.D., a geriatrician at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology, investigated the associations between the risk of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia in people with a history of clinical cardiovascular disease (heart attack, angina or peripheral vascular disease) or markers for cardiovascular disease (including ECG abnormalities, left ventricular hypertrophy, carotid artery thickness or carotid stenosis).
“We found that those with cardiovascular disease had an increased risk of dementia of about 30 percent, only partially explained by stroke,” Dr. Newman said
She added: “Although the relative risk was moderate, the high prevalence of cardiovascular disease coupled with the high risk of dementia in older adults would suggest that prevention of cardiovascular disease may be the most effective preventive measure we have for the prevention of dementia.”
Unfortunately, there are some things you cannot change that can increase your risk of vascular dementia too.
Aside from these cardiovascular risk factors, there is good evidence that keeping mentally active throughout life reduces dementia risk, says the Alzheimer’s Society.
“There is some evidence for the benefits of being socially active too,” the health body adds.
According to the NHS, these include:
- Your age – the risk of vascular dementia increases as you get older, with people over 65 most at risk
- Your family history – your risk of problems such as strokes is higher if a close family member has had them
- Your ethnicity – if you have a south Asian, African or Caribbean background, your risk of vascular dementia is higher, as related problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure are more common in these groups
“In rare cases, unavoidable genetic conditions can also increase your risk of vascular dementia,” notes the health body.
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