Vascular dementia is a type of dementia that can cause a decline in cognitive skills, including memory, reasoning, judgment, and speech. These changes can occur suddenly, or they may start mild and go unnoticed at first.

It’s estimated that between 5 to 10 percent of people over the age of 65 have vascular dementia. It’s the second most common form of dementia, after Alzheimer’s disease, accounting for 20 to 40 percent of all dementia cases.

Vascular dementia can occur alone or alongside other forms of dementia, which is often called mixed dementia.

The symptoms of vascular dementia depend on which part of your brain is affected. The severity of symptoms depends on how long your brain was without oxygen and blood.

Many symptoms overlap with other types of dementia, and not all symptoms are easy to notice.

The most common symptoms of vascular dementia include:

  • confusion and memory problems
  • difficulty paying attention and focusing
  • trouble doing tasks that used to be easy
  • weakness in your hands, feet, arms, and legs
  • being easily agitated or upset
  • changes in personality or behavior
  • depression
  • misplacing items
  • frequently getting lost
  • unsteady gait or balance issues
  • difficulty controlling urination or needing to urinate frequently
  • trouble finding or using the right word
  • trouble reading or writing
  • hallucinations
  • trouble with judgment

Unlike other types of dementia, vascular dementia doesn’t always have a typical progression — it can occur suddenly or start slowly.

Generally, though, it tends to progress in a step-like manner, where there are periods of decline, followed by stability, then decline again.

Still, it can roughly be classified into:

  • Early stages. Making the diagnosis may be difficult because symptoms are mild. However, you’re usually aware that your memory and mental capabilities are not the same as they once were.
  • Middle stages. This is when the symptoms listed above become more noticeable.
  • Late stages. This is where there are dramatic changes in cognitive and physical symptoms. Often, this stage occurs after a severe event, such as a large stroke.

Vascular dementia is caused by a narrowing or blockage in the blood vessels that provide blood to your brain. This reduced blood flow deprives your brain of much-needed oxygen, which can damage your brain very quickly.

Numerous conditions can cause this reduced blood flow to your brain, including:

Of those, stroke is the most common cause of vascular dementia.

Both a series of small strokes over time and a single major stroke can lead to it, with up to one-third of stroke survivors developing dementia within 6 months. This is why vascular dementia is sometimes referred to as “post-stroke dementia.”

Researchers are also looking into the causal role of atypical brain characteristics commonly found in people with vascular dementia because MRI scans have found affected small blood vessels or changes in white matter.

There are several risk factors for vascular dementia, including:

Both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia are forms of dementia, distinct from each other as well as other forms like Lewy body dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and frontotemporal dementia.

Unlike vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease isn’t caused by stroke or low blood flow to your brain.

Vascular problems, such as stroke, high cholesterol, and hypertension, aren’t related to Alzheimer’s disease, as they are with vascular dementia. There is no known cause of Alzheimer’s, though your risk of developing it increases with age.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia, making up to 80 percent of all dementia diagnoses.

In Alzheimer’s, the first symptoms noticed are often memory problems, as well as word-finding trouble, vision or spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment. In vascular dementia, the first symptoms are often neurological.

Vascular dementia usually progresses in a stepwise fashion, whereas Alzheimer’s is more progressive in the decline.

Although vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s are not the same diseases, it is possible to have both at the same time.

In fact, according to the Alzheimer’s Society, about 10 percent of people who have dementia have a form called mixed dementia, and most of these cases include both vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Alzheimer’s diseaseVascular dementia
Causesunknownloss of blood and oxygen to the brain
First symptomsmemory issues, vision or spatial issues, impaired reasoningneurological issues, such as trouble with walking and balance, limb weakness, exaggerated reflexes, depression
Population affected80% of all dementia cases10% of all dementia cases

If your doctor detects neurological symptoms or changes in your memory and reasoning, they may request a detailed assessment and screening that includes:

  • a thorough physical with complete family history
  • a consultation with friends and family members to see if they have detected changes in your behavior
  • a test to check the function of your reflexes, nerves, coordination, and balance
  • imaging and blood tests to check for other conditions that might be causing the cognitive changes

After ruling out other causes, your doctor may come to the conclusion that the changes in memory and cognition are the result of vascular dementia.

The goal of vascular dementia treatment is to repair the underlying conditions that may be causing it. For example, your doctor will work with you to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol.

They may also encourage you to adopt a healthier lifestyle with a better diet and more exercise in order to prevent clogged arteries, heart attack, and stroke.

Some medications are useful in boosting memory and cognitive skills. These medications alter how your brain’s cells communicate, process, store, and retrieve memories.

However, there are currently no treatments approved to stop or reverse the changes caused by vascular dementia.

The brain is capable of repairing itself to a certain extent. It can regenerate blood vessels to help heal damaged areas,

However, the reality is that vascular dementia shortens a person’s lifespan, especially if you have another stroke or heart attack, which can cause further brain damage.

The severity of vascular dementia affects a person’s outlook. The greater the damage to the brain, the more likely a person is to need assistance with everyday tasks.

Many symptoms of vascular dementia go unnoticed or are attributed to another condition, such as stress.

However, professional screenings should be able to detect the changes in memory and function commonly associated with vascular dementia. If you notice changes in yourself or a loved one, make an appointment to speak with a doctor.

If you have a history of heart attack or stroke, screenings are very important. Doctors may notice very minor changes that might be easy to miss. Recognizing the changes and diagnosing them can speed up treatment.

The sooner you’re treated, the better you will do in the future.