Dementia is caused by different diseases of the brain. These diseases affect the parts of the brain which are used for learning, memory and language.
Vascular dementia is a common type of dementia caused by reduced blood flow to the brain.
Vascular dementia tends to get worse over time. But it is sometimes possible to slow it down.
Symptoms of vascular dementia
Vascular dementia can start suddenly or begin slowly over time.
- slowness of thought
- difficulty with planning and understanding
- problems with concentration
- changes to your mood, personality or behaviour
- feeling disoriented and confused
- difficulty walking and keeping balance
- problems with memory and language - these can also be symptoms of Alzheimer's disease
These problems can make daily activities increasingly difficult. Someone with the condition may eventually be unable to look after themselves.
Many people with vascular dementia also have Alzheimer's disease.
When to see your GP
Non-urgent advice: See your GP if:
- you think you have early symptoms of dementia, especially if you're over 65
If it's found at an early stage, treatment may be able to stop vascular dementia getting worse, or at least slow it down.
If you're worried about someone else, encourage them to see their GP. You could suggest that you go with them.
Your GP can do some simple checks to try to find the cause of your symptoms. They can refer you to a memory assessment service or a specialist for further tests if needed.
Tests for vascular dementia
There is no single test for vascular dementia.
The tests that are needed to make a diagnosis include:
- an assessment of symptoms
- a full medical history
- an assessment of mental abilities – this will usually involve several tasks and questions
- a brain scan, such as an MRI scan or CT scan, to look for any changes that have happened in your brain
Treatments for vascular dementia
There is currently no cure for vascular dementia. There is also no way to reverse any loss of brain cells that happened before the condition was diagnosed.
But treatment can sometimes help slow down vascular dementia.
Treatment aims to tackle the underlying cause. This may reduce the speed at which brain cells are lost.
This will often involve:
- eating a healthy, balanced diet
- losing weight if you're overweight
- stopping smoking
- being active
- cutting down on alcohol
- taking medicines to treat high blood pressure, lower cholesterol or prevent blood clots
Other treatments can help to make it easier to live with vascular dementia.
These treatments include:
- occupational therapy
- dementia activities (such as dementia cafes)
- psychological therapies
- assistive technologies
- information and advice
Outlook for vascular dementia
Vascular dementia will usually get worse over time. This can happen in sudden steps, with times between where the symptoms do not change much. But it's difficult to know when this will happen.
Home-based help will usually be needed. Some people will eventually need care in a nursing home.
Although treatment can help, vascular dementia can significantly shorten life expectancy.
But this varies, and many people live for several years with the condition, or die from some other cause.
If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with dementia, remember that you're not alone.
Causes of vascular dementia
Vascular dementia is caused by reduced blood flow to the brain. This damages and eventually kills brain cells.
This can happen as a result of:
- narrowing and blockage of the small blood vessels inside the brain
- a single stroke, where the blood supply to part of the brain is cut off
- lots of 'mini strokes' (also called transient ischaemic attacks, or TIAs) - these cause tiny but widespread damage to the brain
Often, these problems are linked to underlying conditions. These could be things like high blood pressure and diabetes, or lifestyle factors, such as smoking and being overweight.
Tackling these may reduce your risk of vascular dementia in later life. But it's not yet clear exactly how much your risk of dementia can be reduced.
Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE