Vascular Dementia Prognosis and Life Expectancy

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Vascular dementia is a progressive condition that impairs memory and mental function due to decreased blood flow to the brain. It’s the second most common cause of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. Vascular dementia can also occur along with Alzheimer’s disease. Like any form of dementia, it can be difficult to watch a family member or friend lose cognitive function. Knowing what to expect can help you prepare for the journey ahead of you. Here is a look at how the disease can progress and what it means for vascular dementia prognosis and life expectancy.

Vascular Dementia Progression

There are some differences between vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One of the main ones is in the early symptoms. In Alzheimer’s disease, it’s usually forgetfulness. In vascular dementia, this usually isn’t the case. Instead, early symptoms tend to include slowed thought and problems concentrating, making decisions, following directions, planning and organizing. The two diseases become more similar as vascular dementia progresses.

Vascular dementia progression can vary with the underlying cause of the disease. When it results from a stroke, symptoms are more likely to begin suddenly. About 20% of people who suffer a stroke will develop vascular dementia within six months. Whether or not changes in thinking, memory, or mental ability occur will depend on the area of the brain the stroke affected. The extent of the stroke can influence the severity of the symptoms.

Cognitive symptoms tend to develop gradually when the underlying cause is a chronic blood vessel problem. This can include such conditions as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), autoimmune vascular diseases, diabetes, and high blood pressure. These chronic conditions narrow the small blood vessels throughout the entire brain, progressively depriving brain tissue of vital oxygen. Vascular dementia due to these problems can result in subtle changes over time. This type of disease progression is less dramatic than the sudden changes after a stroke, which tends to affect that specific region of the brain supplied by the blocked, or occluded blood vessel.

Another possible cause of vascular dementia is a series of mini-strokes caused by interrupted blood supply to the brain. Vascular dementia stages or steps characterize this form of the disease. Symptoms aren’t sudden or gradual, but follow a noticeable stepwise progression instead. With each mini-stroke, additional symptoms appear or worsen. Then, symptoms remain stable for a period of time, until the next mini-stroke.

Regardless of how the disease progresses, people in the later stages of vascular dementia will show overall decline in cognitive and physical abilities. This will make them dependent on others for their day-to-day care.

Vascular Dementia Life Expectancy

All forms of dementia shorten life expectancy. However, it is difficult to predict how quickly a person with vascular dementia will decline. In general, the vascular dementia survival rate is lower than the survival rate and life expectancy with Alzheimer’s disease. This is primarily due to the underlying causes of vascular dementia.

The average vascular dementia life expectancy after diagnosis is about five years. Some research suggests it may be shorter, at three years, in people who have the disease due to stroke. It’s common for people with vascular dementia to die from a stroke or another event related to the underlying causes, such as a heart attack.

Caring for Someone With Vascular Dementia

There is no cure for vascular dementia. Controlling the underlying cause of the disease may help slow the decline in mental and physical abilities. Drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease may also work to treat symptoms and slow the progression of vascular dementia. But eventually, people with vascular dementia will lose their independence because symptoms will interfere with their ability to care for themselves.

At first, family members will likely be able to offer the necessary care for someone with vascular dementia. Simple reminders, structured routines, and simplified tasks can help them with daily functions. Providing cues and context can be helpful for recall. But caregivers often find behavioral and personality changes difficult to deal with because they can be distressing.

If you’re caring for a loved one with vascular dementia, support is vital. There are several types of resources available to assist caregivers. Respite care and adult daycare programs are examples. Support groups can also help caregivers work through their feelings and find comfort from those in similar situations.

At some point, the disease will progress to a point where specialized care is necessary. People with dementia of any kind often do best in a long-term care facility that specializes in memory care. Talk with your doctor early in the disease so you have time to explore your options. This can help avoid feeling rushed to find the right place for your loved one to receive care. It can also ease your mind to know you have options should you begin to feel overwhelmed by providing care at home.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 28
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