If you notice that a loved one is having trouble with things like memory and reasoning, judgement and planning, you may assume that Alzheimer’s disease is the cause. But there are other possibilities, including vascular dementia brought on by stroke. It’s important to get an accurate diagnosis when such symptoms arise, so that your loved one can learn more about lifestyle changes to improve overall well-being and to potentially prevent future strokes. It’s also helpful to know the risk factors for stroke in order to help your loved one avoid having one.
Dementia is a term that refers to the impaired ability to remember, think or make decisions, such that these symptoms interfere with everyday activities. Alzheimer’s is the most common type of dementia, but it’s only one type. The second most common form of dementia is known as vascular dementia. When a stroke blocks blood flow to the brain, vascular dementia may result, depending on the stroke’s severity and where in the brain it occurs. Strokes do not always cause vascular dementia, however. Likewise, other conditions that damage blood vessels and decrease circulation can cause vascular dementia.
Two types of stroke are associated with vascular dementia—ischemic stroke and transient ischemic attack (TIA), or “ministroke.” An ischemic stroke, which is more common than a ministroke, is caused by a blood clot that blocks a blood vessel. A ministroke is caused by blood flow that is interrupted temporarily, due to either a blood clot or an accumulation of fatty atherosclerotic plaque clogging an artery to the brain. TIA symptoms subside within minutes, but can sometimes last up to 24 hours before they resolve entirely.
Vascular Dementia Caused by Stroke
Vascular dementia symptoms that are associated with stroke can come on suddenly or gradually. Noticeable changes in thought processes or reasoning can be most apparent when they come on suddenly after a stroke. This is also known as post-stroke dementia. But such cognitive changes can also show up after a series of strokes or ministrokes. They occur in noticeable steps downward from the individual’s previous level of functioning, in contrast with the slow, steady decline that is associated with Alzheimer’s. But as with Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia can also develop very gradually, and vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s often occur in tandem.
Symptoms of vascular dementia caused by a stroke include:
- Short-term memory problems
- Confusion or trouble concentrating
- Feelings of slowness
- A tendency to wander or get lost in familiar places
- Trouble carrying out financial transactions or following directions
- Problems with speech or spatial awareness
If your loved one has any of the above symptoms of vascular dementia caused by stroke, it’s important to take careful note of exactly what the symptoms are and to see his or her doctor as soon as possible in order to get an accurate diagnosis. You and your loved one can then explore lifestyle changes to potentially stave off future strokes. Making positive lifestyle changes may also help to improve existing cognitive issues and other post-stroke physical symptoms.
You can help your loved one by encouraging:
- A diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes low-fat dairy and lean protein sources. It should also be low in saturated fats, added sugars and refined carbohydrates.
- Regular exercise.
- Smoking cessation, if that is an issue.
- A means to address any depression or anxiety that may be present, whether via therapy or a support group. It may also help to talk openly with your loved one about his or her feelings.
Daily Tips to Help a Loved One Who Has Vascular Dementia
If your loved one is experiencing vascular dementia caused by stroke, there are ways to help ease the challenges of daily living. You may want to consider the following tips:
- Keep household items in specific spots. For instance, have a drawer designated for eyeglasses, a bowl for keys, a basket for bills, etc. Keep them all in obvious spots and don’t make things too complicated.
- Hang up a big calendar with all appointments and activities written clearly on it.
- Organize into a visible notebook lists of important things like prescriptions, contact information and written directions on how to do things around the house, or where to find items.
- Try to encourage your loved one to stick to a basic routine upon waking and going to bed, and at certain times throughout the day.
- Communicate with your loved one in a positive manner. If he or she asks the same question repeatedly, simply answer. Pointing out repetition only causes embarrassment.
- Try to maintain your own equanimity and patience. That means not neglecting self-care—anything from grabbing lunch with friends to sticking to an exercise routine, going to a support group or hiring a home care aide so that you can take regular breaks.
A ministroke should not be ignored, as it may be a warning sign of a full-blown ischemic stroke. Learn more about stroke signs and symptoms.
Many of the same factors that heighten the risk of heart disease and stroke — like diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and smoking — also increase the risk of vascular dementia risk. Learn more tips on how to prevent stroke.