Dementia is one of the more frightening conditions to affect us as we get older. We expect our bodies to become weaker as we age, but we hope that our minds remain sharp and we are able to interact with the world around us.
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia to affect aging individuals. The second most common is called vascular or multi-infarct dementia.
Vascular dementia resembles Alzheimer’s and is sometimes confused with it, but is not the same condition and the two may even co-exist. Vascular dementia is caused by a series of small strokes that damage the brain.
Strokes occur when the brain’s blood supply is interrupted. This can happen because of blood clots or plaque-hardened blood vessels that hinder blood getting to the brain. Each small stroke that a person experiences will gradually increase the amount of damage in the brain.
Symptoms can occur suddenly and include confusion, problems with recent memory, wandering or getting lost in familiar surroundings, moving with rapid and shuffling steps, loss of bladder or bowel control, inappropriate expression of emotions, difficulty following instructions and problems handling money.
Although symptoms may improve slightly for short periods, they will generally worsen as the individual experiences more small strokes.
Some warning symptoms that a mild stroke is occurring can include mild weakness in an arm or leg, temporarily slurred speech or dizziness. These don’t usually last for more than a couple of days but are often a precursor to dementia.
If you think you are having a mild stroke, go to the hospital immediately.
Fortunately, vascular dementia is an often-preventable condition as it has the same risk factors as heart disease. Having a healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward warding off this kind of dementia.
For example, high blood pressure is a large risk factor in vascular dementia. It is very rare for a person without high blood pressure to experience this. Controlling high blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and heart disease can help to ensure strokes don’t occur.
Other lifestyle habits like getting regular exercise, avoiding smoking and alcohol, and eating a balanced and nutritious diet might also be useful in preventing strokes and vascular dementia.
Generally, what is good for the heart is also good for protecting the brain.
There is no treatment that will reverse damage in the brain once it has occurred, but these preventive measures or others prescribed by a physician such as daily aspirin can help reduce the number of new strokes and further damage to the brain.
As well, some surgical interventions can remove blockages in arteries to help prevent further strokes.
If you think you or a loved one might be experiencing small strokes or the dementia that can result from these, it is important to see your doctor immediately. A full physical exam and history can help to diagnose the problem and a brain scan such as a CT or MRI may show existing stroke damage in the brain.
After all, if we want our minds to remain sharp as we age, every precaution seems worthwhile.
Dr. Latimer is president of Okanagan Clinical Trials and a Kelowna psychiatrist.