Vascular Dementia

Photo of young female hands holding the hands of a senior female

Vascular dementia is a general term describing problems with reasoning, planning, judgment, memory, and other thought processes caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to your brain. Vascular dementia is common following a stroke.

Vascular dementia is a common post-stroke problem which affects cognitive function or thinking abilities. Vascular dementia makes it difficult for you to process information. This can lead to memory loss, confusion, decreased attention span and problems performing everyday activities.

Whether a stroke affects your thinking and reasoning depends on your stroke’s severity and location. Vascular dementia also can result from other conditions that damage blood vessels and reduce circulation, depriving your brain of vital oxygen and nutrients.

Factors that increase your risk of heart disease and stroke—including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking — also raise your vascular dementia risk. Controlling these factors can help lower your chances of developing vascular dementia. The risk for vascular dementia increases with every stroke.

Depending on the location and size of damaged brain area, the onset of dementia following a stroke differs from person to person. Left-hemisphere strokes are commonly associated with vascular dementia. Symptoms of vascular dementia include:
  • Memory loss
  • Confusion
  • Language problems (aphasia)
  • Difficulty paying attention or following a conversation
  • Difficulty planning and organizing tasks
  • Difficulty with calculations, making decisions, solving problems
  • Visual orientation problems, hallucinations
  • Impaired motor skills

Controlling conditions that affect the underlying health of your heart and blood vessels can sometimes slow the rate at which vascular dementia gets worse, and may also sometimes prevent further decline. Depending on your individual situation, your healthcare professional may prescribe medications to:
  • Lower your blood pressure.
  • Reduce your cholesterol level.
  • Prevent your blood from clotting and keep your arteries clear.
  • Help control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
  • Some Alzheimer’s medications may help.

Consult a healthcare professional to determine if and what medications are appropriate.

If you have vascular dementia you may become more dependent on family members or caregivers for assistance with activities of daily living due to physical and behavioral changes. Here are some practical strategies to manage the symptoms of vascular dementia:
  • For memory problems—create lists, take notes and establish a regular routine.
  • For cognitive (thinking) symptoms—work with a speech therapist, play card games and use puzzles and crosswords. There are also computer programs and applications to sharpen brain functions.
  • Manage stroke risk factors like hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol by taking medications prescribed by your healthcare professional as well as making lifestyle changes.
  • Work or consult with a physical or occupational therapist to regain and maintain independence.
  • Improve social functioning and reduce isolation by attending a stroke support group to connect with others, practice social skills and seek advice. To find a support group in your area, visit the national Stroke Support Group Registry.
  • To manage depression and other emotional issues, seek out a counselor or social worker.
  • If vascular dementia impacts your functioning at work, discuss your needs with your employer.

If you have severe vascular dementia may not be able to maintain financial responsibilities or make medical decisions. A Medical Power of Attorney is a legal document that designates a person to make healthcare decisions for you if you are unable to. Living wills and advance directives are also legal documents that outline your preferences if you are unable to communicate them.

Providing care for a person with dementia is physically and emotionally demanding. Feelings of anger and guilt, frustration and discouragement, worry and grief, as well as social isolation are common.

Learn as much about the vascular dementia as you can. Ask your primary care doctor or neurologist about good sources of information. Your local librarian also can help you find good resources.
  • Take a break every day. Take care of your health by seeing your own doctors on schedule, eating healthy meals and getting exercise.
  • Seek out support. Many people with dementia and their families benefit from counseling or local support services. Contact your local Alzheimer’s Association affiliate to connect with support groups, resources and referrals, home care agencies, residential care facilities, a telephone help line, and educational seminars.
  • Give encouragement. Caregivers can help a person cope with vascular dementia by being there to listen, reassuring the person that life can still be enjoyed, providing encouragement, and doing their best to help the person retain dignity and self-respect.
  • Provide a calm environment. A calm and predictable environment can help reduce worry and agitation. Establish a daily routine that includes enjoyable activities well within the comfort zone of the person with vascular dementia.

New situations, excess noise, large groups of people, being rushed or pressed to remember, or being asked to do complicated tasks can cause anxiety. As a person with dementia becomes upset, the ability to think clearly declines even more.

Paying attention to your own needs and well-being is one of the most important things you can do for yourself and for the person in your care.