Vascular Dementia: Causes, Symptoms, and Care Home Support

 In Blog, Dementia Care

Watching a loved one struggle with changes in thinking and behaviour can be incredibly difficult. If you suspect vascular dementia, seeking a diagnosis is a vital first step. Understanding this disease allows you to explore care options that best support your loved one’s needs. Care homes provide a safe and understanding environment, offering specialised expertise for those living with vascular dementia.

Causes of Vascular Dementia

Vascular dementia arises when the brain’s network of blood vessels is compromised, starving brain cells of vital oxygen and nutrients. Several factors contribute to this damage:

Stroke: The Primary Culprit

A stroke occurs when blood flow to an area of the brain is suddenly interrupted. This can happen due to a blockage (ischemic stroke) or a burst blood vessel (hemorrhagic stroke). Both scenarios deprive brain cells of essential resources, leading to damage or death.

The Impact of Underlying Health Conditions

Diabetes: Uncontrolled diabetes damages blood vessels throughout the body, including those in the brain. This long-term damage significantly increases the risk of vascular dementia.

High Blood Pressure (Hypertension): Excessive pressure within blood vessels puts a strain on their walls. Over time, this weakens blood vessels, making them more prone to blockages or damage, setting the stage for vascular dementia.

High Cholesterol: High levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol contribute to the formation of plaque, a fatty substance that builds up within blood vessels. This plaque narrows blood vessels, restricting blood flow to the brain and increasing vascular dementia risk.

Heart Disease: Various heart problems can compromise the heart’s ability to efficiently pump blood. This decreased blood supply to the brain raises the likelihood of vascular dementia.

The Effects of Lifestyle Choices

Smoking: Tobacco smoke contains substances that directly harm blood vessel walls and accelerate the buildup of plaque. Smoking dramatically increases the risk of vascular dementia.

Obesity: Carrying excess weight can increase risk factors such as high blood pressure and diabetes, indirectly contributing to vascular dementia.

Physical Inactivity: Regular exercise is essential for cardiovascular health. A sedentary lifestyle weakens the heart and blood vessels and can raise the risk of vascular dementia.

Excessive Alcohol Consumption: Heavy drinking damages blood vessels, contributes to high blood pressure, and increases the risk of other health conditions linked to vascular dementia.

Symptoms – What Families Look For

Vascular dementia often presents with a range of symptoms that can be distressing and disruptive to daily life. Early signs might be subtle, but they tend to become more obvious with time.

  • Beyond Memory Loss: While memory problems are common, don’t solely focus on forgetfulness.  Behavioural changes like agitation, unexplained mood swings, or shifts in personality could be early indicators of vascular dementia.
  • Stepwise Decline: Vascular dementia often progresses in a ‘stepwise’ manner. This means periods of stability might be interrupted by sudden worsening of symptoms, often following a stroke or mini-strokes.
  • Impact on Daily Life:  Observe difficulties in tasks requiring organisation, planning, and decision-making. Struggling with communication, getting lost in familiar places, and confusion about time or surroundings can also be signs. These changes signify that vascular dementia is affecting everyday functioning.

Important Note: It is important to remember that every individual with vascular dementia experiences a unique combination of symptoms. If you notice significant changes in your loved one’s cognition, behaviour, or ability to manage daily life, seek medical attention promptly.

Diagnosis and Treatment

When to See a Doctor

If you, or a family member, suspect changes in memory, thinking, or behaviour are more than just normal ageing, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with a doctor. Early diagnosis is crucial for determining the cause and initiating treatments to slow the progression of decline.

The Assessment Process

Diagnosing vascular dementia involves a multi-step approach:

  • Medical History: Your doctor will thoroughly review any current health conditions, medications, and past strokes or heart problems.
  • Cognitive Testing: Brief evaluations assess memory, thinking abilities, language skills, and problem-solving.
  • Brain Scans: CT or MRI scans can reveal signs of strokes, blood vessel changes, or other brain abnormalities related to vascular dementia.

Treating the Underlying Causes

A treatment plan will focus on addressing contributing health conditions:

  • Managing Blood Pressure: Medications may be prescribed to keep blood pressure within healthy levels.
  • Controlling Cholesterol: Statins or other cholesterol-lowering medications might be recommended.
  • Diabetes Management: Proper blood sugar control is essential through medication, diet, and exercise.
  • Lifestyle Modifications: Your doctor will emphasise quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, and regular exercise.

Managing Symptoms and Behaviour

While there’s no cure for vascular dementia, interventions can improve quality of life:

Medications: Several types of medications can help manage specific symptoms:

  • Cholinesterase inhibitors: These may temporarily improve thinking and memory for some individuals with early to moderate stages of vascular dementia.
  • Antidepressants: These help address depression or anxiety, which often accompany vascular dementia.
  • Antipsychotics: In very specific situations, these may be prescribed for severe agitation or behaviours posing risk. However, they must be used cautiously as they have side effects, especially in older adults.

Therapies: Non-medication approaches play a vital role:

  • Occupational therapy: Teaches strategies to compensate for cognitive changes, maintain daily routines, and simplify activities for as long as possible.
  • Speech therapy: Helps with language difficulties and provides tools for better communication as vascular dementia progresses.
  • Cognitive Stimulation Therapy (CST): Group activities for people with dementia focus on mentally stimulating exercises and social interaction.

Managing Challenging Behaviours:  Dementia often causes behaviours that disrupt daily life and cause distress for loved ones and caregivers. Techniques focus on:

  • Identifying triggers: Tracking patterns in agitation, wandering, or anxiety helps pinpoint what might trigger these behaviours. Modifying the environment or routines can sometimes prevent episodes.
  • Redirection and distraction: When challenging behaviours occur, simple redirection to a different activity or offering soothing reassurance can sometimes help.
  • Support groups & counselling: Caregivers need support too! Support groups connect caregivers to share experiences, while professional counselling helps develop coping mechanisms.

Statistics and Facts

Understanding the scope of vascular dementia helps illustrate its impact on individuals and society. Here are some key figures to consider:

  • Prevalence:
    • Vascular dementia is the second most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.
    • It’s estimated that around 150,000 people in the UK are living with vascular dementia. 
  • Life Expectancy by Age:
    • Average life expectancy after a vascular dementia diagnosis is around five years. However, this varies greatly depending on the person’s overall health and when they were diagnosed.
    • Those diagnosed younger, for example in their 60s, may live with the disease for a decade or longer.
  • Risk Factors:
    • Age is the biggest risk factor. The likelihood of developing vascular dementia increases significantly after age 65.
    • High blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and smoking dramatically increase a person’s risk.
    • Statistics show that controlling risk factors can significantly lower the chances of developing vascular dementia.

Important Note: These statistics provide a general overview. Every individual experiences vascular dementia differently.

Vascular Dementia in a Care Home Setting

When Care Homes Become Necessary: As vascular dementia progresses, an individual’s care needs might reach a point where they can no longer be safely and effectively managed at home, even with in-home support. That’s when a care home can offer a solution.

Specialised Care

Care homes specialising in dementia care offer distinct advantages:

  • Expertise: Staff are trained in managing memory loss, behavioural changes, and the medical conditions that often accompany vascular dementia.
  • Tailored Activities: Daily programs are designed to stimulate the mind, encourage social interaction, and provide a sense of purpose for those with cognitive decline.
  • Person-Centred Care: A focus on getting to know each resident’s individual needs, preferences, and history allows for more personalised care and a higher quality of life.

A Safe and Supportive Environment

Care homes offer:

  • Secured Spaces: Designed to prevent wandering and ensure residents’ safety while allowing some freedom of movement.
  • Structured Routines: Predictability helps minimise confusion and agitation commonly experienced by those with vascular dementia.
  • Adapted Communication: Staff are trained to communicate effectively with residents, even those who have difficulty finding words or express themselves verbally.

Choosing the Right Care Home

Deciding on a care home is a major step, and finding the right fit is really important. Here’s what to consider when specialising in vascular dementia care:

Important Considerations:

  • Dementia expertise: Ensure the staff has received specialised dementia care training.
  • Person-centred approach: Does the care home prioritise getting to know residents as individuals?
  • Activities & Environment: Are activities designed for those with cognitive impairment? Are common areas safe and secure?
  • Staffing levels: Are there enough staff to provide adequate support, particularly during busy times of day?
  • Communication: Does the care home value open communication with families?

Questions to Ask:  During care home visits, inquire about:

  • Their approach to managing challenging behaviours common in vascular dementia.
  • Strategies for supporting individuals as their cognitive abilities decline.
  • How they create a calming and supportive environment for residents.
  • How they involve families in the care plan and keep them updated.

Resources and Support:

  • Age UK (https://www.ageuk.org.uk/): Offers a wealth of information on dementia care, support groups, and practical advice on choosing a care home. Their helpline is: 0800 678 1602
  • Alzheimer’s Society (https://www.alzheimers.org.uk/): While their primary focus is Alzheimer’s disease, they provide valuable resources for all forms of dementia. Their Dementia Connect support line: 0333 150 3456
  • Dementia UK (https://www.dementiauk.org/): Offers support specifically for families facing dementia, including their Admiral Nurse helpline for more personalised advice: 0800 888 6678
  • NHS (https://www.nhs.uk/): Visit their website for information on dementia diagnosis, treatment, and care options. You can also search for care home ratings on the Care Quality Commission (CQC) website.

Seeking Care in Nottinghamshire? If you are exploring dementia care options in the Nottinghamshire region for a loved one with vascular dementia, Lidder Care welcomes your inquiries. We have residential care and nursing home options in Mansfield and Kirby-in-Ashfield. Contact us to arrange a visit or to discuss your specific needs.