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What Are the Differences Between Vascular Dementia and Alzheimer's?

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by Karen Mozzer on 6/8/15, 7:00 AM

Vascular dementia accounts for roughly 10 percent of all dementia cases, but it’s widely misunderstood among lay people and can be quite difficult to diagnose accurately. Even after a diagnosis, you still may not be clear about what vascular dementia actually means for your afflicted loved one. While this type of dementia has many similarities to Alzheimer’s disease, and may even co-exist with it, there are some key differences between the two conditions.

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Causes

Most cases of vascular dementia result from a specific health event that causes brain damage, such as a stroke. Others result from chronic issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or uncontrolled diabetes. In contrast, it’s not clear exactly what causes Alzheimer’s – it appears to have a genetic component, possibly mixed with environmental and lifestyle factors, but it can’t be definitively linked to specific health problems. All that researchers really know is that something happens with Alzheimer’s that causes plaques and abnormal neural tangles to develop in the brain.

Manifestation of Symptoms

While a lot of these dementia symptoms overlap with Alzheimer’s disease, they can also vary wildly depending on which part of the brain is damaged. Symptoms often – though not always – come on quickly in the days or weeks following a vascular event, such as a stroke, while Alzheimer’s symptoms can take years to evolve.

Rate of Progression

Vascular dementia is characterized by sudden onset and/or significant downturns interspersed with periods when the condition doesn’t get any worse. If the dementia is linked to a specific one-time event, the symptoms may not get any worse and can, in some cases, improve over time. In contrast, Alzheimer’s sufferers tend to experience relatively steady, inexorable decline with no known chance of reversal.

Response to Treatment

The treatment options for vascular dementia vary according to the root cause. In a few cases, treatment can completely stop progression by mitigating or removing the underlying health problems. The brain damage itself is usually irreversible, but it doesn’t always get worse. Treatment for Alzheimer’s may effectively slow the progression of disease, but it will not stop or improve.

With vascular dementia, initiatives toward a healthier lifestyle such as smoking cessation, a heart-healthy diet and an appropriate amount of exercise can actually reduce the risk of developing or worsening the condition. These may also play a role with Alzheimer’s, but there are no proven methods for preventing disease.

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