Vascular dementia 

  • Overview

Introduction 

Dementia: Singing for the Brain

Singing for the Brain is a service provided by the Alzheimer's Society, which uses singing and other activities to bring together people with dementia or memory loss. A group of participants and their carers talk about the service's benefits.

Media last reviewed: 22/02/2012

Next review due: 22/02/2014

What is dementia?

Dementia is the loss of mental ability caused by the gradual death of brain cells.

It can affect:

  • memory
  • thinking speed
  • language
  • understanding
  • judgement

People with dementia may behave inappropriately in social situations and aspects of their personality may change for example, they may seem disinterested, have problems controlling their emotions, or hold false beliefs.

Dementia is generally an age-related disease and is normally rare in anyone younger than 65.

Vascular dementia is a common form of dementia that affects more than 111,000 people in the UK.

The term 'dementia' describes a loss of mental ability associated with gradual death of brain cells.

Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain because there is a problem with the blood vessels that supply it. Parts of the brain become damaged and eventually die from a lack of oxygen and nutrients. 

However, unlike other forms of dementia, many cases of vascular dementia can be prevented.

Spotting the early warning signs

Many cases of vascular dementia start with early warning signs that can be treated. This early stage is known as 'vascular cognitive impairment'. If the disease is caught at this stage, the brain deterioration can be stopped and vascular dementia can be prevented.  

People with vascular cognitive impairment may begin to show dementia symptoms, such as slowness of thought, difficulty with planning, memory loss, trouble with language, and mood or behavioural changes. These symptoms indicate that some brain damage has already occurred and needs to be treated immediately. 

If you're worried because you think you have started to show some of the signs of vascular dementia, or you think someone you know has, see your GP.

Signs of vascular dementia

Once vascular cognitive impairment progresses to vascular dementia, the disease can only be slowed down, not stopped. At this stage the dementia symptoms will usually be much more obvious, and may be made worse by depression.

The exact symptoms will depend on which areas of the brain have been affected.

Learn more about the symptoms of vascular dementia and its early warning signs.

What are the causes?

The most common cause of vascular dementia is narrowing and blockage of the small blood vessels deep inside the brain. The medical name for this is subcortical vascular dementia, or 'small vessel disease'.

Most cases of small vessel disease result from inheriting certain genes from your parents, so it is often seen running in families. Persistent high blood pressure is thought to play a role and may worsen the disease.

Because of the influence of high blood pressure, vascular dementia may be partly preventable. Managing high blood pressure, losing excess weight and stopping smoking may reduce your risk of developing the disease, or at least slow its progression.

Who is affected?

Vascular dementia is more common in men and usually starts before the age of 75. 

It is also more common among Asian and Black Caribbean people, probably because both groups are more prone to high blood pressure.

Learn more about the causes of vascular dementia.

How is it diagnosed?

To diagnose vascular dementia or test for its early warning signs, your doctor will usually:

  • assess your symptoms 
  • take your full medical history
  • assess your mental abilities  
  • physically examine you
  • review the medication you are taking
  • order a range of tests, including blood tests, to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms
  • refer you for brain scans, if necessary 

Find out more about the diagnosis of vascular dementia.

How is it treated, and what is the outlook?

If vascular cognitive impairment is caught before it progresses to dementia, lifestyle changes and control of blood pressure may prevent any more damage to the brain and, importantly, may prevent vascular dementia.

Recommended lifestyle changes include losing excess weightstopping smoking and eating healthily.

Once vascular cognitive impairment progresses to vascular dementia, the disease can only be slowed down, not stopped. Medicines may help control some of the symptoms. Read more about the treatment of vascular dementia.

Rehabilitative support such as physiotherapyoccupational therapy and speech therapy aims to help people regain lost functions, and dementia activities such as 'memory cafes' and some psychological therapies can help manage symptoms.

The symptoms usually get steadily worse over the course of many years. The brain damage that causes vascular dementia is permanent and will significantly shorten life. Most people will die either from complications of dementia, such as pneumonia, or from a subsequent stroke.

Dementia affects the whole life of the person who has it, as well as their family. If you have been diagnosed with dementia, or you are caring for someone with the condition, advice and support is available to help you. 

More information

Living with dementia

Find dementia activities near you

Living well with dementia 

Staying independent with dementia 

Dementia activities 

Looking after someone with dementia 

Dementia and your relationships 

Communicating with people with dementia 

Coping with dementia behaviour changes 

Care and support

Sources of help and support 

Organising care at home 

Dementia and care homes 

Dementia, social services and the NHS 

Dementia and your money 

Managing legal affairs for someone with dementia 

End of life planning 

How you can help

Become a 'Dementia Friend'

Help make the UK a good place for dementia

Talk it through with a dementia nurse 

Share your dementia experiences

Page last reviewed: 05/02/2013

Next review due: 05/02/2015

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