What Is Vascular Dementia and How Does High Blood Pressure Cause It?

Vascular dementia is a brain disease characterized by problems with reasoning, planning, judgment, memory, and other thought processes.

The majority of dementia sufferers actually have both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia.

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Vascular dementia, the second leading kind of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease, is relatively unknown and unrecognized by the general population compared to Alzheimer’s. Yet it is responsible for at least 20 percent of cases of dementia.[1]

The majority of dementia sufferers actually have both Alzheimer’s disease and vascular dementia; this combination is now the leading cause of age-related cognitive impairment.[1]

What Is Vascular Dementia?

Vascular dementia is a brain disease characterized by problems with reasoning, planning, judgment, memory and other thought processes. It is caused by brain damage from impaired blood flow to your brain.

Anything that narrows, blocks, or chronically damages your brain’s blood vessels can lead to vascular dementia by reducing circulation and depriving your brain of vital oxygen and nutrients. Without enough oxygen and nutrients, brain cells die and brain function becomes impaired.

Vascular Dementia Symptoms

The symptoms of vascular dementia are highly variable and depend on the cause and location of the blood flow impairment. They can develop suddenly, in distinct steps downward, or very gradually.

Once full-blown vascular dementia has developed, the symptoms can overlap with those of Alzheimer’s disease and can include:

  • Problems with memory
  • Trouble paying attention and concentrating
  • Trouble deciding what to do next
  • Confusion
  • Reduced ability to organize thoughts or actions
  • Difficulty analyzing situations, developing an effective plan and communicating that plan to others
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Unsteady gait
  • Sudden or frequent urge to urinate or inability to control passing urine
  • Depression

High Blood Pressure: Common Cause of Vascular Dementia

High blood pressure is a leading cause of vascular dementia. While not everyone with high blood pressure will develop vascular dementia, hypertension significantly increases the risk.[2] Even if you have just slightly elevated blood pressure (prehypertension), your risk of vascular dementia is three times greater compared to someone with normal blood pressure.[3] And if you have stage 1 or stage 2 hypertension, your risk is even greater—4.5-fold and 5.6-fold, respectively.

Your risk is especially high if you develop high blood pressure in mid-life. In that case, even if your late-life blood pressure is reduced to less than 140/90, your risk remains elevated.[3]High blood pressure causes excessive free radical production (oxidative stress) and inflammation directly within the blood vessels that supply the brain.[2] Through these and other mechanisms, hypertension gradually injures the brain’s blood vessels, particularly the small arteries. Over time, the arterial damage caused by high blood pressure leads to what are called “white matter lesions.”

White Matter Lesions

The brain consists of gray matter and white matter. The gray matter contains the nerve cells while the white matter is composed of nerve fibers and myelin, which form the connections between the nerve cells and help to insulate and accelerate impulses.

Alzheimer’s-related dementia is caused primarily by lesions in the grey matter —called amyloid plaques. In contrast, vascular dementia is associated with white-matter lesions that occur when the small arteries that supply the brain are injured.

Many older people who have brain MRIs show white-matter lesions. While there appear to be multiple causes, hypertension is one of the most well-known.[4] Not everyone with white matter lesions develops vascular dementia, but the risk is much greater if white matter lesions are present.

Strokes

Another way high blood pressure leads to vascular dementia is by causing strokes. A stroke occurs when a blood vessel to the brain is either blocked by a clot (ischemic stroke) or bursts (hemorrhagic stroke). High blood pressure causes both types of strokes by damaging blood vessels so they either become blocked or burst more easily.

A single, major stroke can cause immediate dementia. But even mini strokes (transient ischemic attacks) or strokes that don’t cause any noticeable symptoms (silent brain infarctions) increase dementia risk. The more mini or silent strokes you have over time, the more your vascular dementia risk increases.

How to Treat Vascular Dementia Naturally

While the ultimate goal is to prevent vascular dementia before it occurs, treating your hypertension and improving your underlying blood vessel health may also sometimes slow the progression of vascular dementia when it is already present, preventing further decline.

Your best bet for naturally lowering your blood pressure and improving the underlying health of your blood vessels is to follow a comprehensive, multi-faceted treatment program that includes dietary therapy, exercise, nutritional therapy, stress reduction, sleep optimization, and other natural lifestyle interventions.

Dual-Impact Natural Treatments

Many of the natural treatments that lower blood pressure, such as physical activity and healthy diets like the DASH and Mediterranean diets, also help protect the brain. For some excellent ideas on how to naturally lower your blood pressure while simultaneously protecting your brain, you can also take the following simple steps:

  1. Take vitamin C. See This Natural Remedy for High Blood Pressure is Safe and Effective According to Johns Hopkins Researchers.
  2. Take grape seed extract (See Grape Seed Extract Benefits Blood Pressure and Cholesterol) or olive leaf extract (See Olive Leaf Benefits: High Blood Pressure Supplement and More).

Losing your ability to think and remember is one of the most devastating manifestations of high blood pressure. Get started today with a plan to keep your brain’s blood vessels clear and healthy to keep vascular dementia at bay.

Share with our readers what you do to naturally lower your blood pressure and protect your brain. Leave a comment below.


[1] Neuron. 2013 Nov 20;80(4):844-66.

[2] Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2011 Jul;26(7):661-9.

[3] Hypertension. 2011 Jul;58(1):22-8.

[4] Hypertension. 2014; 63:894-903.

[5] Stroke. 2011; 42: 2672-2713.


Originally published in 2014 and updated.

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UHN Staff

University Health News is produced by the award-winning editors and authors of Belvoir Media Group’s Health & Wellness Division. Headquartered in Norwalk, Conn., with editorial offices in Florida, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, … Read More

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