Despite what many people think, dementia isn’t a normal part of getting older.
Forgetfulness, yes. Difficulty remembering names and dates, yes. But this is not the same thing.
My mother just turned 98. We talk on the phone almost daily, discussing books we’ve read and things we’re discovering. Clearly, and thankfully, dementia is not a part of her life, even at that advanced age.
There are risk factors other than age that place you more directly in the path of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease. Some are not under your control, but many are.
Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer’s. Its causes and risk factors are different from AD, its symptoms show up in a different order… and it’s much more under our control.
Signs and symptoms
Symptoms of vascular dementia can vary, depending upon which part or parts of the brain have been damaged due to a lack of blood flow. Those symptoms can include:
- Trouble with attention and concentration
- Reduced ability to organize thoughts and plan actions
- Restlessness and agitation
- Unsteady gait
- Depression or apathy
- Memory problems
In its earliest stages, vascular dementia typically does not involve declining memory, as does Alzheimer’s. Rather, a person will exhibit the other symptoms listed above, before memory impairment becomes a problem.
Are you at risk?
Any condition that damages your brain’s blood vessels and reduces their ability to supply your brain with the nutrition and oxygen it needs to think clearly is a risk factor for vascular dementia.
A stroke, of course, would do this if it blocks a brain artery. But multiple “silent” strokes (with no apparent symptoms) raise your risk of dementia, too.
That’s why other health conditions that raise your stroke risk, raise your dementia risk as well. These include:
- Heart disease. Plaque buildup in the arteries surrounding your heart is a major cause of heart disease. This can slow blood flow to your brain as well. Also, many of the things that cause heart disease, like smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, are also risk factors for dementia.
- Diabetes. Doctors aren’t yet sure why so many people with diabetes go on to develop dementia, and research is ongoing. Blood vessel damage is one of the complications of diabetes. Therefore, diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, is considered a risk factor for vascular dementia.
- High Cholesterol. High cholesterol levels in middle age are linked to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes, all risk factors for vascular dementia. It’s unclear at this point whether high cholesterol itself puts you at risk for dementia later in life.
- High blood pressure. Undetected and untreated high blood pressure damages your blood vessels and increases your stroke risk.
- Head injury. One fall may not make you more susceptible to dementia. But repeated injuries will.
If you hit your head and experience blurry vision, nausea, confusion, dizziness or sensitivity to light, you have likely had a concussion and should seek medical help immediately.
How to prevent vascular dementia
Clearly, anything you can do to protect your blood vessels will lower your risk of developing vascular dementia. And there’s a lot you can do, and not do, to control that risk.
Maintain a healthy blood pressure. How? There are several components to this:
- Control stress in your life
- Eat a healthy diet – watch your sodium intake, and stick to a brain-healthy and heart-healthy diet, like the Mediterranean diet or its “cousin,” the MIND diet.
- Develop and stick to a consistent exercise program, even if it’s just walking, and stick to it! High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of exercise that increases blood flow to the brain.
- Don’t smoke! It damages your blood vessels and increases your stroke risk. If you are a smoker, quit! Research says that finding a partner in this endeavor will dramatically increase your chances of success.
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- Things That Raise Your Chances of Dementia — WebMD
- Tobacco & Dementia — World Health Organization
- Diabetes and Alzheimer’s linked — Mayo Clinic
- The progression of vascular dementia — Alzheimer’s Society
- High intensity interval training (HIIT) may prevent cognitive decline — Medical Xpress