What Is Vascular Dementia?
Vascular dementia, considered the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease, and vascular cognitive impairment (VCI) result from injuries to the vessels supplying blood to the brain, often after a stroke or series of strokes. Vascular dementia and VCI arise as a result of risk factors that similarly increase the risk for cerebrovascular disease (such as stroke), including atrial fibrillation, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, and high cholesterol. The symptoms of vascular dementia can be similar to those of Alzheimer’s, and both conditions can occur at the same time. Symptoms of vascular dementia can begin suddenly and worsen or improve during one’s lifetime.
This type of dementia is often managed with drugs to prevent strokes. The aim is to reduce the risk of additional brain damage. Some studies suggest that drugs that improve memory in Alzheimer’s disease might benefit people with early vascular dementia. Interventions that address risk factors may be incorporated into the management of vascular dementia.
Some types of vascular dementia include:
Multi-infarct dementia. This type of dementia occurs when a person has had many small strokes that damage brain cells. One side of the body may be disproportionally affected, and multi-infarct dementia may impair language or other functions, depending on the region of the brain that is affected. When the strokes occur on both sides of the brain, dementia is more likely than when stroke occurs on one side of the brain. In some cases, a single stroke can damage the brain enough to cause dementia. This so-called single-infarct dementia is more common when stroke affects the left side of the brain—where speech centers are located—and/or when it involves the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is vital for memory.
Cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy (CADASIL). This inherited form of cardiovascular disease results in a thickening of the walls of small- and medium-sized blood vessels, eventually stemming the flow of blood to the brain. It is associated with mutations of a gene called Notch3. CADASIL is associated with multi-infarct dementia, stroke, migraine with aura (migraine preceded by visual symptoms), and mood disorders. The first symptoms can appear in people between ages 20 and 40. Many people with CADASIL are undiagnosed. People with first-degree relatives who have CADASIL can be tested for genetic mutations to the Notch3 gene to determine their own risk of developing CADASIL.
Subcortical vascular dementia, also called Binswanger’s disease. This rare form of dementia involves extensive damage to the small blood vessels and nerve fibers that make up white matter, the “network” part of the brain believed to be critical for relaying messages between regions. The symptoms of Binswanger’s are related to the disruption of subcortical neural circuits involving short-term memory, organization, mood, attention, decision making, and appropriate behavior. A characteristic feature of this disease is psychomotor slowness, such as an increase in the time it takes for a person to think of a letter and then write it on a piece of paper.
For more information about vascular dementia and VCI, see NIA’s list of resources.
For More Information About Vascular Dementia
NIA Alzheimer’s and related Dementias Education and Referral (ADEAR) Center
The National Institute on Aging’s ADEAR Center offers information and free print publications about Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias for families, caregivers, and health professionals. ADEAR Center staff answer telephone, email, and written requests and make referrals to local and national resources.
National Library of Medicine
Content reviewed: May 17, 2017