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Vascular dementia is the second most common cause of dementia, after Alzheimer's disease. It accounts for up to 20 percent of all dementias and is caused by brain damage from cerebrovascular or cardiovascular problems - usually strokes. It also may result from genetic diseases, endocarditis (infection of a heart valve), or amyloid angiopathy (a process in which amyloid protein builds up in the brain's blood vessels, sometimes causing hemorrhagic or "bleeding" strokes). In many cases, it may coexist with Alzheimer's disease. The incidence of vascular dementia increases with advancing age and is similar in men and women.
Symptoms of vascular dementia often begin suddenly, frequently after a stroke. Patients may have a history of high blood pressure, vascular disease, or previous strokes or heart attacks. Vascular dementia may or may not get worse with time, depending on whether the person has additional strokes. In some cases, symptoms may get better with time. When the disease does get worse, it often progresses in a stepwise manner, with sudden changes in ability. Vascular dementia with brain damage to the mid-brain regions, however, may cause a gradual, progressive cognitive impairment that may look much like Alzheimer's disease. Unlike people with Alzheimer's disease, people with vascular dementia often maintain their personality and normal levels of emotional responsiveness until the later stages of the disease.
There are several types of vascular dementia, which vary slightly in their causes and symptoms. One type, called multi-infarct dementia (MID), is caused by numerous small strokes in the brain. MID typically includes multiple damaged areas, called infarcts, along with extensive lesions in the white matter, or nerve fibers, of the brain.
Because the infarcts in MID affect isolated areas of the brain, the symptoms are often limited to one side of the body or they may affect just one or a few specific functions, such as language. Neurologists call these "local" or "focal" symptoms, as opposed to the "global" symptoms seen in Alzheimer's disease, which affect many functions and are not restricted to one side of the body.
Although not all strokes cause dementia, in some cases a single stroke can damage the brain enough to cause dementia. This condition is called single-infarct dementia. Dementia is more common when the stroke takes place on the left side (hemisphere) of the brain and/or when it involves the hippocampus, a brain structure important for memory.
Another type of vascular dementia is linked to a rare hereditary disorder called CADASIL, which stands for cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy with subcortical infarct and leukoencephalopathy. CADASIL is linked to abnormalities of a specific gene, Notch3, which is located on chromosome 19. This condition causes multi-infarct dementia as well as stroke, migraine with aura, and mood disorders. The first symptoms usually appear in people who are in their twenties, thirties, or forties and affected individuals often die by age 65. Researchers believe most people with CADASIL go undiagnosed, and the actual prevalence of the disease is not yet known.
Other causes of vascular dementia include vasculitis, an inflammation of the blood vessel system; profound hypotension (low blood pressure); and lesions caused by brain hemorrhage. The autoimmune disease lupus erythematosus and the inflammatory disease temporal arteritis can also damage blood vessels in a way that leads to vascular dementia.
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