Vascular Dementia

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is vascular dementia?

Vascular dementia is a type of brain degeneration that comes from blocked or reduced blood flow to the brain, which can be caused by a serious of small strokes. It is the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.

When blood can’t get to the brain, even for just a few seconds, the lack of oxygen will kill brain cells, causing irreversible damage. A person with dementia experiences thinking problems and poor executive functioning and processing from a permanent loss of brain function. Some medical experts use the term vascular cognitive impairment because there is a spectrum of severity of the condition.

The biggest risk factor for vascular dementia is older age. It’s rare for someone to develop the condition before age 65, but it’s more and more likely to happen as people age into their 80s. Other risk factors include smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and atherosclerosis, which is when arteries harden and weaken from a long-term buildup of fatty plaque. Obesity and past heart attack or stroke are also risk factors.

Some of the most common signs of vascular dementia are confusion, difficulty thinking, and problems understanding speech. Vascular dementia symptoms might not show up if the brain damage is only in a small area, but more symptoms will develop as more brain cells die, and they will get worse with time.

If someone experiences a sudden change in cognitive function, such as sudden confusion, the person might be having a stroke. Other signs of stroke include paralysis on one side of the body—including the face, and problems with speech. Call 911 for emergency medical help.

What are the symptoms of vascular dementia?

Symptoms of vascular dementia depend on what part of the brain has been affected by reduced blood flow. Not everyone with vascular dementia will develop the same symptoms or develop them at the same rate. Sometimes, vascular dementia symptoms occur suddenly after a stroke, stabilize, and then worsen noticeably after another stroke or mini strokes.

Alternatively, sometimes symptoms develop gradually and get worse slowly with time, much like with Alzheimer’s disease.

Early symptoms of vascular dementia

The most common vascular dementia symptoms in its early stages are:

  • Disorientation, such as getting lost on familiar routes

  • Difficulty making plans, making decisions, reasoning, and problem solving

  • Confusion and difficulty concentrating

  • Difficulty following instructions or difficulty with familiar tasks

  • Trouble talking, understanding what people are saying, or remembering the names of familiar objects

  • Vision loss or problems seeing in three dimensions

  • Changes in mood or personality, such as apathy, depression, or mood swings

  • Memory loss or losing things

Symptoms in later stages of vascular dementia

Many symptoms of advanced vascular dementia are the same as in the early stages, except to a greater extent. As symptoms progress, a person might need help with day-to-day activities, such as dressing, eating, walking, driving and bathing. Advanced stage vascular dementia symptoms include:

  • Forgetting current events, personal history, or names of familiar people

  • Withdrawing from social activities or behaving inappropriately in social situations

  • Waking up at night or having other disturbed sleep

  • Changes in character, such as irritability, aggressiveness, or violent behavior

  • Greater difficulties with speech

  • Occasionally, having delusions or hallucinations

What causes vascular dementia?

A series of small strokes causes vascular dementia. A block in blood flow to the brain in the smallest blood vessels causes brain cells to die (infarct) from lack of oxygen. This is similar to a stroke which usually affects larger blood vessels, and it can happen multiple times. In fact, another name for vascular dementia is multi-infarct dementia. Damaged or narrowed blood vessels can prevent adequate blood supply and oxygen to the brain.

Medical conditions that contribute to reduced blood flow to the brain and raise your risk of multiple infarctions and vascular dementia are the same ones that increase the risk of coronary artery disease and heart attack. These conditions include hypertension, high cholesterol, diabetes, and hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis).

There are different kinds of strokes affecting different parts of the brain and at different levels of severity. A silent stroke affects only a small area in the brain and may not cause symptoms of vascular dementia to appear. However, when many silent strokes occur (multi-infarction), brain cells continue to die. As brain damage progresses, symptoms begin to show up. Large strokes that block major blood vessels are also a risk factor for vascular dementia.

What are the risk factors for vascular dementia?

Some risk factors for vascular dementia are related to lifestyle, such as smoking and poor diet, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. Men have a slightly increased risk of developing vascular dementia compared to women.

Risk factors include:

  • Atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and weakening of the arteries

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • High cholesterol

  • Older age, beginning at age 65, with the risk increasing the older people get

  • Obesity

  • Past stroke or heart attack

  • Smoking

Reducing your risk of vascular dementia

While you can’t change your age, you may be able to lower your risk of vascular dementia by:

  • Keeping your diabetes, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels in check

  • Not smoking

  • Staying mentally and socially active

  • Getting regular exercise and eating a heart-healthy diet

  • Maintaining a healthy weight

  • Drinking alcohol in moderation

How is vascular dementia treated?

It is impossible to undo the brain damage that causes vascular dementia. However, doctors can treat the underlying causes and risk factors for stroke and vascular dementia. Medications can help manage diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, and can even help you quit smoking. Aspirin or prescription blood thinners may prevent the risk of stroke, but do not start taking aspirin without talking with your doctor.

There are no medications specifically for treating vascular dementia, but Alzheimer’s medicines may improve some dementia symptoms. Talk with your doctor about whether these medications might work for your symptoms. See a neurologist who specializes in vascular dementia to learn about dementia medications.

Other vascular dementia treatment options include occupational therapy to cope with changing or loss of physical abilities. This can include breaking down complex tasks into smaller chunks or developing a regular routine to help the person remember what to do. Helping the person continue participating in activities he or she enjoys is also important.

Dementia specialists also treat dementia-related symptoms and conditions, such as depression. Medications and cognitive behavioral therapy are quite effective for depression and mood disorders in general. Medications might also be necessary to address aggressive or violent behavior in the later stages of dementia.

What are the potential complications of vascular dementia?

People with vascular dementia will experience symptoms that continue to get worse with time and may eventually lose the ability to perform their daily activities independently. Vascular dementia also may shorten a person’s life expectancy. Some research has shown vascular dementia life expectancy is, on average, about three years after developing dementia following a stroke. Other complications include:

Was this helpful?
  1. Vascular Dementia. Alzheimer’s Association.
  2. Vascular Dementia. Mayo Clinic.
  3. Vascular Dementia. Alzheimer’s Society.
  4. Vascular Dementia. MedlinePlus, U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 25
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