Vascular dementia, a common form of dementia often mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease

Alzheimer’s isn’t always the cause of a progressive loss of memory and other mental skills.

According to the July issue of Mayo Clinic Health Letter, one cause is vascular dementia, a common form of dementia often mistaken for Alzheimer’s disease. Vascular dementia, which accounts for 10 percent to 20 percent of all dementias, occurs when small blood vessels in the brain become narrowed or blocked, causing brain damage.

You may be at risk of vascular dementia if you have certain conditions that affect blood vessels in your brain, such as a history of stroke, high blood pressure and diabetes. Risk of vascular dementia also is linked to atherosclerosis -- a condition in which fatty deposits (plaques) occur in the inner lining of the arteries. Atherosclerosis is the cause of numerous vascular problems, including heart attack.

While Alzheimer’s disease typically develops gradually and often progresses steadily, vascular dementia is suggested if there’s a history of stroke and an abrupt onset and stepwise progression -- periods of stability that are interrupted with abrupt declines. A diagnosis is based on your health history, signs and symptoms and diagnostic imaging tests such as computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

So far, there’s no cure for vascular dementia, but medications may slow its progress. You also can reduce the risk of the disease or slow its progression by controlling high blood pressure and diabetes, not smoking and reducing cholesterol.

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