Vascular dementia (VaD) is not a single disease but a group of syndromes relating to different vascular mechanisms - ischaemia or haemorrhage secondary to cerebrovascular disease (multiple infarcts, single strategic infarct, small vessel disease) or cardiovascular disease (eg heart failure). Cortical and subcortical VaDs are the two main subtypes. Subcortical VaD is also called Binswanger's disease. Some VaD displays familial traits eg CADASIL (= cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy).
Characteristically, VaD is a progressive disease where deteriorations may be sudden or gradual but tend to progress in a stepwise manner. It can be aggravated by hypertension, diabetes mellitus, cardiac arrhythmias and cardiac failure.
The distinction between VaD and Alzheimer's dementia is becoming increasingly blurred because vascular risk factors play a role in both diseases and both types of dementia may co-exist in the same patient - a mixed dementia pattern. Similar patterns of biochemical abnormalities are also seen on proton magnetic resonance spectroscopy. However, where they are seen mostly in white matter in VaD, in Alzheimer's dementia they predominate in cortical grey matter.
Vascular dementia (VaD) is the second most common form of dementia in the West after Alzheimer's disease (AD). It is the most common form in some parts of Asia. Incidence increases with age.
- The prevalence rate of VaD is 1.5% in Western countries and approximately 2.2% in Japan.
- In Japan, VaD accounts for 50% of all dementias that occur in individuals older than 65 years.
- In Europe, VaD and mixed dementia account for approximately 20% and 40% of cases, respectively.
One year after a stroke, 25% of patients develop new-onset dementia. Within four years following a stroke, the relative risk of incident dementia is 5.5%.
The prevalence of VaD is higher in men than in women.
In contrast to acute confusional state (which is usually of recent onset and may have a reversible cause), the history should go back at least several months and usually several years.
NINDS-AIREN criteria for the clinical diagnosis of PROBABLE vascular dementia (VaD) - as recommended by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE)
- Presence of dementia - cognitive decline from higher level of functioning. This can be demonstrated as memory loss plus impairment in two or more different cognitive domains (see 'Diagnosis', below). This should be established by clinical examination and neuropsychological testing. Deficits should be severe enough to interfere with activities of daily living - not secondary effects of the cerebrovascular event alone.
- Cerebrovascular disease, defined by the presence of signs on neurological examination and/or by brain imaging.
- A relationship between the above two disorders inferred by:
- Onset of dementia within three months following a recognised stroke.
- An abrupt deterioration in cognitive functions.
- Fluctuating, stepwise progression of cognitive deficits.
- Focal neurological abnormalities: visual disturbances (eg field defects), sensory or motor symptoms (eg dysphasia, hemiparesis, visual field defects) or extrapyramidal signs (eg dystonias and Parkinsonian features).
- Early presence of disturbance in gait, unsteadiness and frequent, unprovoked falls.
- The patient has bladder symptoms (eg incontinence) without a demonstrable urological condition.
- The patient may also show pseudobulbar palsy and emotional problems, eg emotional lability, psychomotor retardation or depression.
For objective evidence, carry out a test of cognitive functioning (see under 'Diagnosis', below).
Also consider dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB) in elderly patients presenting with hallucinations, lucid periods, movement disorders, falls or syncope. Making this diagnosis will have important implications for treatment, as the use of neuroleptics in these patients causes 2- to 3-fold excess mortality.
The diagnosis of dementia should only be made after:
- Comprehensive history and physical examination. The key to diagnosis is a good history of progressive impairment of memory and other cognitive functioning (usually requiring the help of a spouse, relative or friend).
- Conduct a formal screen for cognitive impairment - see separate article Screening for Cognitive Impairment.
Make specific notes on the following:
- Memory - both short- and long-term.
- Individual cognitive domains:
- Orientation - time, place, person.
- Attention and concentration ability.
- Language function (usually evident during questioning).
- Visuospatial functions.
- Executive function - problem solving, etc.
- Motor control.
- Praxis - whether they can get dressed, lay a table, etc.
- Other reversible organic causes have been excluded.
Note: it is important to identify depression and treat appropriately. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between depression and dementia and depression is quite common in dementia. If in doubt, treat.
Like other dementias the treatment is symptomatic, addressing the individual's main problems and supporting the carers. Addressing cardiovascular risk factors is also very important to try to slow progression. See separate article Cardiovascular Risk Assessment.
People with challenging behaviour
This patient group is given a specific mention. They should be offered early assessment which includes:
- Physical health.
- Depression and any psychosocial issues.
- Possible undetected pain or discomfort.
- Adverse effects of medication.
- Life history, including spiritual, cultural and religious identity.
- Physical environment.
- Behavioural and functional analysis by a skilled professional.
Comorbid emotional disorders
Nondrug options for the management of agitation, anxiety or depression might include aromatherapy, multisensory stimulation, music therapy, animal-assisted therapy, massage, cognitive behavioural therapy (sometimes involving carers), reminiscence therapy and exercise.
Acetylcholinesterase inhibitors are not currently licensed for use in vascular dementia (VaD), but studies have shown donepezil improves cognitive function for some patients with VaD. The drug has less consistent effects on global function and activities of daily living (ADL).
Galantamine has been shown to improve cognition (including executive function), in patients with VaD. It has good safety and tolerability. However, it was shown to provide no improvement in activities of daily living compared to placebo.
Medication for non-cognitive symptoms (eg emotional symptoms) and challenging behaviour
This should only be used if there is severe distress or immediate risk of harm to the patient or others. NICE does not recommend the use of antipsychotics for mild-to-moderate non-cognitive symptoms in dementia with VaD or mixed dementia because of the increased risk of cerebrovascular adverse events and death. For severe symptoms (eg psychosis and/or agitated behaviour causing significant distress), antipsychotics should only be prescribed once the risks and benefits have fully been considered and discussed with carers, risk factors have been assessed and a regular assessment has been made of changes in cognition. Comorbid conditions such as depression should be considered and treated, and treatment should be time-limited. 
Urgent treatment of challenging behaviour
If intramuscular agents are required for behavioural control, NICE recommends lorazepam, haloperidol or olanzapine.
If possible, a single agent should be used. If rapid tranquilisation is required, lorazepam and haloperidol should be used in combination. The patient should be monitored for dystonia and other extrapyramidal effects. Anticholinergic drugs may be used if side-effects become distressing, but monitor for deteriorating cognitive function.
Diazepam or chlorpromazine should be avoided.
Vascular dementia (VaD) is modifiable and preventable.
Modifying vascular risk factors in midlife may help to prevent stroke and VaD. The single most important risk factor is hypertension.
- Behavioural problems, including wandering, delusions, hallucinations, and poor judgement.
- Falls and gait abnormality.
- Aspiration pneumonia.
- Decubitus ulcers.
- Caregiver burden and stress: this should be considered a complication of any dementia, including vascular dementia (VaD). This can lead to increased psychiatric and medical morbidity in the caregiver.
The effect of vascular dementia (VaD) on mortality is similar to, or mildly worse than, that of Alzheimer's disease. VaD reduces life expectancy to about 50% of normal, by four years from initial diagnosis.
About one third of the most severely affected elderly die from complications of the dementia itself; one third from cerebrovascular disease, 8% from cardiovascular disease and the rest from other causes.
Further reading & references
- Farlow MR; Use of antidementia agents in vascular dementia: beyond Alzheimer disease. Mayo Clin Proc. 2006 Oct;81(10):1350-8.
- Binswanger's Disease, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
- Kalaria RN, Erkinjuntti T; Small vessel disease and subcortical vascular dementia. J Clin Neurol. 2006 Mar;2(1):1-11. Epub 2006 Mar 20.
- Jones RS, Waldman AD; 1H-MRS evaluation of metabolism in Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. Neurol Res. 2004 Jul;26(5):488-95.
- Alagiakrishnan K et al; Vascular Dementia, Medscape, Sep 2011
- Wiederkehr S, Simard M, Fortin C, et al; Validity of the clinical diagnostic criteria for vascular dementia: a critical J Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2008 Spring;20(2):162-77.
- Dementia: Supporting people with dementia and their carers in health and social care, NICE Clinical Guideline (2006)
- Roman GC, Tatemichi TK, Erkinjuntti T, et al; Vascular dementia: diagnostic criteria for research studies. Report of the Neurology. 1993 Feb;43(2):250-60.
- Weisman D, McKeith I; Dementia with lewy bodies. Semin Neurol. 2007 Feb;27(1):42-7.
- Roman GC, Salloway S, Black SE, et al; Randomized, placebo-controlled, clinical trial of donepezil in vascular dementia: Stroke. 2010 Jun;41(6):1213-21. Epub 2010 Apr 15.
- Malouf R, Birks J; Donepezil for vascular cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2004;(1):CD004395.
- Auchus AP, Brashear HR, Salloway S, et al; Galantamine treatment of vascular dementia: a randomized trial. Neurology. 2007 Jul 31;69(5):448-58.
- Bowler JV; Modern concept of vascular cognitive impairment. Br Med Bull. 2007;83:291-305. Epub 2007 Aug 4.
|Original Author: Dr Laurence Knott||Current Version: Dr Hayley Willacy||Peer Reviewer: Dr Hannah Gronow|
|Last Checked: 19/07/2012||Document ID: 420 Version: 5||© EMIS|
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