Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia in South Africa. But what is vascular dementia? Is it different to Alzheimer’s? What causes it and how do you go forward once you are diagnosed?

What is vascular dementia?

The word dementia describes a set of symptoms that can include memory loss and difficulties with thinking, problem-solving or language.

In vascular dementia, these symptoms occur when the brain is damaged because of problems with the supply of blood to the brain.

If the vascular system within the brain becomes damaged – so that the blood vessels leak or become blocked – then blood cannot reach the brain cells and they will eventually die.

This death of brain cells can cause problems with memory, thinking or reasoning.

When these cognitive problems are bad enough to have a significant impact on daily life, this is known as vascular dementia.

It’s rare in anyone younger than 65.

There are several different types of vascular dementia, due to the varying levels of damage on the affected part of the brain.

They include stroke-related dementia, single-infarct and multi-infarct dementia, subcortical vascular dementia and mixed dementia – which includes both vascular and Alzheimer’s disease.


What are the stages of vascular dementia?

Many cases of vascular dementia start with early warning signs. This early stage is known as vascular cognitive impairment and can be barely noticeable or mistaken for something else, such as depression.

These include slight:

  • slowness of thought
  • difficulty with planning
  • trouble with language
  • problems with attention and concentration
  • mood or behavioural changes

These symptoms can indicate that some brain damage has already occurred and treatment needs to be started immediately.

If the damage to the brain continues, symptoms can quickly worsen to an advanced stage, making daily activities increasingly difficult.

This often happens in sudden steps, with relatively stable periods in between, although it’s difficult to predict when these steps will happen.

As well as the symptoms listed above, further possible signs can include feeling disorientated and confused, memory loss and difficulty concentrating, struggling to find the right words, severe personality changes – including becoming aggressive, finding it difficult to walk/keep falling, struggle to control urination and seeing things that aren’t there.

Some people will also have symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease too.


How is vascular dementia treated?

There is no specific treatment for vascular dementia and no way to reverse the damage to the brain that has already occurred.

However, treatment may help slow down the progression of the condition and the main aim is to treat the underlying cause to help prevent further problems, such as strokes.

Medicines and lifestyle changes will be encouraged including eating healthily, losing weight if necessary, stop smoking, get fit and cutting down on alcohol.

Support such as physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy is also beneficial.

Although treatment can help, vascular dementia can significantly shorten life expectancy.

The average survival time from diagnosis is around four years.

Most people will die either from complications of dementia, such as pneumonia, or from a subsequent stroke.

See how:

Sunlight Lightens Vascular Dementia and lowers blood pressure