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Vascular Dementia

  • Author: Kannayiram Alagiakrishnan, MD, MBBS, MHA, MPH; Chief Editor: Iqbal Ahmed, MBBS, FRCPsych(UK)  more...
Updated: Jan 12, 2015


Vascular dementia is the second most common form of dementia after Alzheimer disease (AD). The condition is not a single disease; it is a group of syndromes relating to different vascular mechanisms. Vascular dementia is preventable; therefore, early detection and an accurate diagnosis are important.

Patients who have had a stroke are at increased risk for vascular dementia. Recently, vascular lesions have been thought to play a role in AD.

As early as 1899, arteriosclerosis and senile dementia were described as different syndromes. In 1969, Mayer-Gross et al described this syndrome and reported that hypertension is the cause in approximately 50% of patients. In 1974, Hachinski et al coined the term multi-infarct dementia. In 1985, Loeb used the broader term vascular dementia. Recently, Bowler and Hachinski introduced a new term, vascular cognitive impairment.

Case study

A 70-year-old woman came to the clinic with her son for assessment of her cognitive decline. The son is concerned about her short-term memory problems for the past 10 months. Patient had a fall 10 months ago; after that fall, she started to ask the same questions over and over. Patient had another fall 4 months ago and also an episode of dizziness 2 months ago. With these incidents, her son noticed further decline in cognition. Recently, her son noticed that she has become a bit more suspicious of her daughter-in-law and has been hoarding things. She has lost interest in her day-to-day activities and forgets to include the right ingredients when cooking. Family has to remind her to take her medications, and her son is helping with the management of her finances.

The patient has hypertension, diabetes, coronary artery disease, osteoarthritis, and osteoporosis. On the Mini-Mental Status Examination (MMSE), the patient scored 21/30 with abnormal clock drawing. On the Geriatric Depression Scale (GDS), the patient scored 2/15. CT scan of the head showed multiple lacunar infarcts in the right basal ganglia and left cerebellar region.



Many subtypes of vascular dementia have been described to date. The spectrum includes (1) mild vascular cognitive impairment, (2) multi-infarct dementia, (3) vascular dementia due to a strategic single infarct, (4) vascular dementia due to lacunar lesions, (5) vascular dementia due to hemorrhagic lesions, (6) Binswanger disease, (7) subcortical vascular dementia, and (8) mixed dementia (combination of AD and vascular dementia).

Vascular dementia is sometimes further classified as cortical or subcortical dementia.

Vascular disease produces either focal or diffuse effects on the brain and causes cognitive decline. Focal cerebrovascular disease occurs secondary to thrombotic or embolic vascular occlusions. Common areas of the brain associated with cognitive decline are the white matter of the cerebral hemispheres and the deep gray nuclei, especially the striatum and the thalamus. Hypertension is the major cause of diffuse disease, and in many patients, both focal and diffuse disease are observed together. The 3 most common mechanisms of vascular dementia are multiple cortical infarcts, a strategic single infarct, and small vessel disease.

Mild vascular cognitive impairment can occur in elderly persons. It is associated with cognitive decline that is worse than expected for age and educational level, but the effects do not meet the criteria for dementia. These people have subjective and objective evidence of memory problems, but their daily functional living skills are within normal limits.

In multi-infarct dementia, the combined effects of different infarcts produce cognitive decline by affecting the neural nets.

In single-infarct dementia, different areas in the brain can be affected, which may result in significant impairment in cognition. This may be observed in cases of anterior cerebral artery infarct, parietal lobe infarcts, thalamic infarction, and singular gyrus infarction.

Small vessel disease affects all the small vessels of the brain and produces 2 major syndromes, Binswanger disease and lacunar state. Small vessel disease results in arterial wall changes, expansion of the Virchow-Robin spaces, and perivascular parenchymal rarefaction and gliosis.

Lacunar disease is due to small vessel occlusions and produces small cavitary lesions within the brain parenchyma secondary to occlusion of small penetrating arterial branches. These lacunae are found more typically in the internal capsule, deep gray nuclei, and white matter. Lacunar state is a condition in which numerous lacunae, which indicate widespread severe small vessel disease, are present.

Binswanger disease (also known as subcortical leukoencephalopathy) is due to diffuse white matter disease. In Binswanger disease, vascular changes observed are fibrohyalinosis of the small arteries and fibrinoid necrosis of the larger vessels inside the brain.

In cerebral amyloid angiopathy–associated vasculopathy, aneurysm formation and stenosis in the leptomeningeal and cortical vessels cause damage to the subcortical white matter. In hereditary cystatin-C amyloid angiopathy, patients have recurrent cerebral hemorrhages before age 40 years that can lead to dementia. Prevalence of cerebral amyloid angiopathy is consistently higher in patients with dementia than in patients without dementia, which indicates its significant role in the pathogenesis of dementia.[1]

Cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy is a rare autosomal dominant condition localized to chromosome arm 19q12 that affects small vessels supplying the deep white matter. Pathologically, multiple small infarcts are observed in the white matter, thalamus, basal ganglia, and pons.

Other less common syndromes may lead to vascular dementia. Rare arteriopathies such as inflammatory arteriopathy (eg, polyarteritis nodosa, temporal arteritis) and noninflammatory arteriopathy (eg, moyamoya disease, fibromuscular dysplasia) can cause multiple infarcts and can lead to vascular dementia. Hypoperfusion due to large vessel or cardiac disease can affect the watershed areas of the brain and lead to vascular dementia.

Leukoaraiosis greater than 25% is considered to be pathological. Subcortical vascular dementia is a diffuse small vessel disease with minimal or absent infarction with homogenous pathological and clinical features.[2, 3] White matter ischemic changes affect executive dysfunction and cause slower processing speed, rather than memory and language impairment.[4]

Arterial stiffness, which reflects an alteration in arterial mechanics, can be a risk factor for vascular dementia.[5]

Mixed dementia is diagnosed when patients have evidence of Alzheimer dementia and cerebrovascular disease, either clinically or based on neuroimaging evidence of ischemic lesions. Growing evidence indicates that vascular dementia and Alzheimer dementia often coexist, especially in older patients with dementia. Autopsy studies have shown an association between Alzheimer disease and vascular lesions.[6]

Several recent studies also suggest that the risk of developing Alzheimer disease is increased when a patient is exposed to vascular risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes mellitus, peripheral arterial disease, and smoking, which usually are associated with cerebrovascular disease and vascular dementia. Recent evidence suggests that the vascular processes in both disorders may mutually induce each other. Apolipoprotein E may play a role in Alzheimer disease and vascular dementia. Apolipoprotein E4 also increases the risk of dementia in stroke survivors and is a strong risk factor for the development of cerebral amyloid angiopathy in patients with Alzheimer disease. In elderly individuals, many cases of dementia may be caused by the cumulative effect of cerebrovascular and Alzheimer pathology.

One-third of patients with vascular dementia are found to have significant Alzheimer disease pathology with cholinergic deficits in the nucleus basalis of Meynert.[7]

Vascular cognitive disorder (VCD) is a new term used to describe a particular constellation of cognitive and functional impairment spectrum that ranges from vascular cognitive impairment (VCI) to subcortical vascular dementia, poststroke dementia, and mixed dementia.[3]




Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia in the United States and Europe, but it is the most common form in some parts of Asia.

The prevalence rate of vascular dementia is 1.5% in Western countries and approximately 2.2% in Japan. In Japan, vascular dementia accounts for 50% of all dementias that occur in individuals older than 65 years.

In Europe, vascular dementia and mixed dementia account for approximately 20% and 40% of cases, respectively.

In Latin America, 15% of all dementias are vascular.

In community-based studies in Australia, the prevalence rate for vascular and mixed dementia is 13% and 28%, respectively.

The prevalence rate of dementia is 9 times higher in patients who have had a stroke than in controls. One year after a stroke, 25% of patients develop new-onset dementia. Within 4 years following a stroke, the relative risk of incident dementia is 5.5%.

The prevalence of vascular dementia is higher in men than in women.


In patients with dementia who have had a stroke, the increase in mortality is significant. The 5-year survival rate is 39% for patients with vascular dementia compared with 75% for age-matched controls.[8]

Vascular dementia is associated with a higher mortality rate than AD, presumably because of the coexistence of other atherosclerotic diseases.

Study on causes of death in patients with dementia showed that circulatory system disorders (eg, ischemic heart disease) is the most common immediate cause of death in vascular dementia, followed by respiratory system diseases (eg, pneumonia).[9]

A study of hospitalization rates in patients with dementia showed that persons who developed different types of incident dementia, including vascular dementia, were found to have an increased risk of hospitalization, including hospitalization for ambulatory care-sensitive conditions.[10]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

Kannayiram Alagiakrishnan, MD, MBBS, MHA, MPH Associate Professor, Department of Medicine, Division of Geriatric Medicine, University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, Canada

Kannayiram Alagiakrishnan, MD, MBBS, MHA, MPH is a member of the following medical societies: American College of Physicians, American Geriatrics Society

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

Iqbal Ahmed, MBBS, FRCPsych(UK) Faculty, Department of Psychiatry, Tripler Army Medical Center; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences; Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Clinical Professor of Geriatric Medicine, University of Hawaii, John A Burns School of Medicine

Iqbal Ahmed, MBBS, FRCPsych(UK) is a member of the following medical societies: Academy of Psychosomatic Medicine, American Neuropsychiatric Association, American Society of Clinical Psychopharmacology, Royal College of Psychiatrists, American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, American Psychiatric Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Additional Contributors

Mohammed A Memon, MD Chairman and Attending Geriatric Psychiatrist, Department of Psychiatry, Spartanburg Regional Medical Center

Mohammed A Memon, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, American Medical Association, American Psychiatric Association

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


Kamal Masaki, MD Associate Director of Geriatric Medicine Fellowship, Associate Professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Division of Geriatric Medicine, University of Hawaii, John Burns School of Medicine

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

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