Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s disease, affecting almost a third of people over age 70. Dementia causes a decline in brain function, or cognitive abilities, beyond what is expected from the normal aging process. Dementia causes problems with memory, thinking, behavior, language skills, and decision making.
Vascular dementia is caused by conditions that damage the blood vessels in the brain, depriving the brain of oxygen. This oxygen shortage inhibits the brain’s ability to work as well as it should. For example, stroke blocks blood flow to the brain, decreasing oxygen. However, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking also increase the risk of vascular dementia. Vascular dementia in patients can occur alone or with Alzheimer’s disease.
To diagnose cognitive impairment and dementia, your doctor will ask about problems you may have carrying out daily activities. Your doctor will give you brief memory or thinking tests and may ask to speak with a relative or friend who knows you well. To determine whether vascular dementia is the cause of any cognitive impairment or dementia that you may have, your doctor will consider your medical history and your lifestyle (such as your eating patterns, physical activity level, sleep health, and whether you are or have been a smoker), and order imaging tests. Diagnosis can take time. This is because it is often difficult to tell whether symptoms are a result of problems with the blood vessels, as is the case with vascular dementia, or whether they are from Alzheimer’s disease.
If your doctor diagnoses you with vascular dementia, your treatment plan may include taking medicine or using medical devices to manage other conditions, such as high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, or sleep apnea, that may cause your vascular dementia to worsen. Your doctor may also recommend that you adopt heart-healthy lifestyle changes, such as heart-healthy eating, which includes limiting alcohol, getting regular physical activity, aiming for a healthy weight; quitting smoking; and managing stress.
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The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) leads or sponsors many studies aimed at preventing, diagnosing, and treating heart, lung, blood, and sleep disorders.