As we get further and further into adulthood, it becomes painfully obvious that our bodies aren’t as sturdy and resilient as they once were. Injuries, diseases and various aches and pains seem to attack more frequently, and the body tends to take longer to recover from them. These medical issues aren’t limited to physical maladies; older adults frequently complain about declining memories and a deteriorating ability to concentrate and focus. While such problems can be dismissed as inevitable signs of advancing age, they can also be indicative of serious medical conditions. One such disease, vascular dementia, impacts millions of elderly patients every single year.
How Vascular Dementia Affects the Mind
Though you may not have heard of it before reading this article, vascular dementia is actually one of the leading forms of dementia in the United States. Vascular dementia develops when the brain starts to receive an insufficient amount of blood from the cardiovascular system. There can be several factors behind this lack of blood circulation; diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure can easily narrow blood vessels, while sustaining multiple small strokes can inflict lasting damage on the cardiovascular system. High levels of bad cholesterol can also cause vascular dementia, along with a prolonged smoking habit.
Like Alzheimer’s disease, the symptoms associated with vascular dementia can be fairly mild when they first appear. Because of this subtlety, the patient and his or her loved ones may not realize that something is amiss until the disease suddenly increases in intensity. As shown by the following list of symptoms, the warning signs of this condition mimic many other forms of dementia:
- Worsening short term memory
- Getting lost in familiar environments
- Inappropriate reactions to certain events or conversions
- A noticeable decline in the patient’s ability to focus and to concentrate
- Losing track of money and recent financial transactions
- Difficulty with remembering and following instructions
- Loss of bowel and bladder control
- Patient begins to have hallucinations and delusional experiences
In many cases, things take a dramatic turn for the worse after the patient suffers a major stroke. This sudden decline in cognitive abilities is a telltale sign that the patient has vascular dementia instead of similar diseases. Alzheimer’s, for instance, tends to get slowly worse over a period of many years.
Treatment and Prevention
Perhaps the most distressing aspect of vascular dementia is its lack of treatment options. To date, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved any medications specifically designed to treat vascular dementia. Upon diagnosing a patient with this condition, doctors usually focus their efforts on slowing down the progression of vascular dementia symptoms.
To accomplish this task, the patient may be prescribed cholinesterase inhibitors, a type of medication used to treat Alzheimer’s. Cholinesterase inhibitors assist the body by increasing acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter that enables the brain to store memories and learn new information. Even if cholinesterase inhibitors are unable to increase the amount of acetylcholine in the brain, they can boost the performance of the preexisting acetylcholine neurotransmitters, effectively achieving a similar result. Like virtually all potent drugs, cholinesterase inhibitors can lead to the appearance of multiple side effects, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and muscle cramps.
Another type of Alzheimer’s medication often used to fight vascular dementia is memantine, which is sold under the brand name Namenda. Once inside the body, memantine works to counteract the effects of glutamate, a substance that can trigger Alzheimer’s symptoms when present in excessive amounts. As is to be expected, memantine is not without side effects, as some patients report headaches, dizziness, constipation and aches throughout the body.
Aside from prescription medications, doctors frequently urge those with vascular dementia to improve their overall health. This is a logical approach, especially considering how this type of dementia is closely related to other health problems within the body. In keeping with this line of treatment, the doctor will offer strategies for lowering the patient’s blood pressure and level of bad cholesterol. If the patient is also a diabetic, the body’s glucose levels (or the amount of sugar in the blood) must also be closely monitored.
While reigning in runaway blood pressure and reducing bad cholesterol levels are certainly worthwhile goals, they are usually very difficult to achieve. Such problems are typically the consequences of years of neglect and poor lifestyle choices, and old habits tend to die hard. If you find yourself struggling against these common maladies, the following advice might prove especially useful.
Blood Pressure – High blood pressure (also known as hypertension) receives much attention, and deservedly so, since this condition is often a precursor of impending major health problems. Heart attacks and cardiovascular disease, for example, are often preceded by high blood pressure readings. As is so often the case, abnormally high blood pressure can be traced back to poor diet. Fortunately, changes in diet can reverse hypertension. Foods that may help to lower blood pressure include blueberries, whole-grain cereals high in fiber, beets, skim milk and bananas.
High Cholesterol – You probably have heard this factoid before, but it’s worth repeating that cholesterol isn’t inherently bad; doctors have long distinguished between the good and bad forms of cholesterol. Your body’s amount of bad cholesterol (medically referred to as LDL cholesterol) largely depends on the food your put into it. Healthy foods, such as oatmeal, walnuts, almonds, olive oil, apples and various types of fish, can be very helpful in depleting the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood stream.
Blood Sugar (Glucose) – Type 2 diabetes, a condition that encompasses 90 to 95 percent of all diabetics in the US, develops when an overabundance of glucose builds up within the blood stream. While this problem can be caused by insufficient insulin production by the pancreas, it can also occur when the body’s insulin cannot properly handle excessive amounts of glucose. Glucose is created after the body digests carbohydrates from various foods. Since carbohydrate consumption and glucose levels tend to go hand-in-hand, diabetics are usually told to strictly limit their intake of carb-heavy fare.
Additionally, diabetics are encouraged to choose wisely when consuming carbs, with vegetables and whole-grain items generally representing the best options in this regard. Foods rich in fiber, a category that includes corn, black beans, avocadoes, whole wheat pasta, brown rice and whole wheat bread (among many other items), can also lower glucose levels. Diabetics can also reap encouraging results from eating fish high in healthy fats (such as salmon, tuna and halibut) and various kinds of nuts (almonds, walnuts and pecans all make for good choices).
Besides making changes in diet, dementia patients are often advised to maintain active lifestyles. A 2012 study, conducted by faculty at the University of California at Los Angeles (better known by the acronym UCLA), found that sticking to an active routine could impede the advancement of dementia symptoms. According to this report, seniors have a wide range of options to choose from when looking for rewarding activities, including gardening, yard work, dancing, bicycling and playing various sports.