Senior Living Q&A:

The traits of dementia

May 20, 2010|By Nancy Turney

Q. My mom was recently diagnosed with vascular dementia. How is that different from Alzheimer’s? My mom was recently diagnosed with vascular dementia. How is that different from Alzheimer’s?

Dan, La Cañada


Vascular dementia is widely considered the second-most-common type of dementia. It develops when impaired blood flow to parts of the brain deprives cells of food and oxygen.

The diagnosis may be clearest when symptoms appear soon after a single major stroke blocks a large blood vessel and disrupts the blood supply to a significant portion of the brain. This situation is sometimes called “post-stroke dementia.”


There is also a form in which a series of very small strokes, or infarcts, block small blood vessels. Individually, these strokes do not cause major symptoms, but over time their combined effect becomes noticeable. This type is referred to as vascular cognitive impairment, or multi-infarct dementia.

Symptoms of vascular dementia can vary, depending on the specific brain areas deprived of blood. Impairment may occur in steps, where there is a fairly sudden, noticeable change in function, rather than the slow, steady decline usually seen in Alzheimer’s disease.

The person may have a past history of heart attacks. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, hardening of the arteries, diabetes, or other risk factors for heart disease are often present.

Symptoms of vascular dementia may or may not mimic those of Alzheimer’s and include:

•?Memory problems may or may not be prominent, depending on whether brain regions important in memory are affected.

•?Confusion, which may get worse at night.

•?Difficulty concentrating, planning, communicating and following instructions.

•?Reduced ability to carry out daily activities.

•?Physical symptoms associated with strokes, such as sudden weakness, difficulty speaking or confusion.

Magnetic resonance imaging of the brain may show characteristic abnormalities associated with vascular damage.

Because vascular dementia is closely tied to diseases of the heart and blood vessels, many experts consider it the most potentially treatable form.

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