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Vascular dementia: Spotting signs of the common condition

It's not rare, yet many of us are confused about the second most common type of the condition. An expert explains the key symptoms and risks to Susan Griffin

Affecting around 150,000 people in the UK, vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia, after Alzheimer's disease.

Yet, very few people know exactly what it is or how it differs from other forms of dementia, and this lack of awareness can perpetuate a sense of fear, especially for an ageing population.

Here's a look at some of the key facts.


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 there is a reduced blood supply to the brain, due to diseased blood vessels", explains Kathryn Smith, director of operations at Alzheimer's Society.

To be healthy and function properly, brain cells need a constant supply of blood, which is delivered through a network of vessels called the vascular system. If the blood vessels leak or become blocked, then blood can't reach the brain cells and they'll eventually die. It's the death of brain cells which causes problems with memory, thinking or reasoning (collectively known as cognition). When these cognitive problems are bad enough to have a significant impact on daily life, it's known as vascular dementia.


"The most common symptoms in the early stages of vascular dementia are problems with planning or organising, making decisions or solving problems, slower speed of thought and problems concentrating, including short periods of sudden confusion," Smith explains.

As well as these cognitive symptoms, it is common for someone with early vascular dementia to experience mood changes, such as apathy, depression or anxiety. But symptoms will be dependent on the underlying causes. For instance, symptoms may develop suddenly after a stroke, or more gradually, such as with small vessel disease. Anyone who is concerned that they may have vascular dementia (or any other type of dementia) should seek help from their GP.


Cardiovascular disease, and therefore vascular dementia, is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight in mid-life, so someone can reduce their risk by having regular check-ups, not smoking and keeping physically active. It also helps to eat a healthy balanced diet and drink alcohol in moderation. Aside from these cardiovascular risk factors, there is evidence that keeping mentally and socially active throughout life, reduces dementia risk too.


Over time, a person with vascular dementia is likely to develop more severe confusion or disorientation, and further problems with reasoning and communication. Memory loss, for example, for recent events or names, will also become worse. Over time, the person is likely to need more support with day-to-day activities, such as cooking or cleaning, as they become increasingly frail. The speed and pattern of this decline varies.


"There is currently no cure for vascular dementia," says Smith. "The brain damage that causes it cannot be reversed. However, there is a lot that can be done to enable someone to live well with the condition. This will involve drug and non-drug treatment, support and activities."

Access to appropriate support - for both the person diagnosed with dementia and their carers - plays a vital role, and after being diagnosed, people should have a chance to talk to a health or social care professional. This could be a psychiatrist or mental health nurse, a clinical psychologist, occupational therapist or GP.


It's believed that a number of factors can put someone at increased risk of developing vascular dementia, including:

Age: The risk of developing the condition doubles approximately every five years over the age of 65.

History of cardiovascular disease: A person who's had a stroke or has diabetes or heart disease, is approximately twice as likely to develop vascular dementia.

Sleep apnoea: A condition, often associated with being overweight, where breathing stops for a few seconds or minutes during sleep is thought to be a possible risk factor.

Depression: According to the Alzheimer's Society, there is some evidence that a history of depression may also increase the risk of vascular dementia.

Genetic factors: Someone with a family history of stroke, heart disease or diabetes has an increased risk of developing these conditions, although the role of genes in the common types of vascular dementia is small.

Ethnicity: Those from an Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Sri Lankan backgrounds living in the UK have significantly higher rates of stroke, diabetes and heart disease than white Europeans. Among people of African-Caribbean descent, the risk of diabetes and stroke - but not heart disease - is also higher.

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