Posts tagged: vascular dementia

Vascular Dementia

Dr. Holzmacher's Business Logo for Orlandopsych.comVascular dementia is a progressive loss of cognitive skills over time, secondary to a blockage or rupture of a blood vessel in the brain.  This term used to be called “multi-infarct dementia”, and other classification systems refer to it as an “arteriosclerotic dementia.”  The primary form is atherosclerosis, in which the plaques of fatty deposits form in the innermost layer of the cerebral artery.  It is almost exclusively a problem of the older adult.  Very young children are prone to arteriovenous malformations, which are congenital defects of the cerebral vascular system.  Most of these AVM’s are located in the brain stem, and do not result in the sort of symptoms observed in the older adult.

The primary deficit of multiple strokes is an impairment of memory.  The impairment may be the ability to recall old information or learn new information.  It is rare that someone forgets old information, yet learns new information at an average level.  The most common scenario is a decreased ability to retain new information, with increasing impairment of long-term personal information that declines with every subsequent stroke.  The specific deficit regarding loss of old personal information is called “episodic memory”, and it may be affected in isolation of other memory impairments.  A specific deficit of this type of memory is exceedingly rare, such that an impairment of new learning is much more common.

Vascular dementia is not limited to memory impairment alone.  The diagnostic criteria stipulates that a patient must have a memory impairment, as well as one other cognitive deficit, in order to be appropriately diagnosed with “Vascular Dementia”.  The most common cognitive impairment from stroke is difficulty with motor control; not just unilateral paralysis, but an impaired ability to carry out motor routines, despite a functional motor system.  Many stroke victims have difficultly recognizing and utilizing objects, despite having an intact sensory system.  Lastly, many stroke suffers have difficulty switching between mental tasks, making plans, and organizing the steps necessary to accomplish a plan.

Patients with a vascular dementia are impaired in work and/or social functioning.  If one performs well at work and socially, despite having multiple strokes, the diagnosis of “Vascular Dementia” would not be appropriate.  Usually, there are hard neurological signs of the multiple strokes; e.g., unilateral paralysis, gait disturbance (difficulty walking), unilateral weakness and lesions that appear on brain images.  It is also common to suffer with a delirium in the acute phase, which is an altered mental state where a person is incapable of focusing their attention. Immediate attention is often impaired after a stroke, but tends to resolve over several months.

Psychological problems are common after suffering one or more strokes.  It is not common to have delusions of persecution or grandiosity after a stroke.  Some forms of progressive dementia affecting the right prefrontal-temporal area exhibit delusions as an early symptom of the disease.  Neglect of the right or left visual space should not be mistaken for a delusion.  It is frequently the case that the patient suffered with a Delusional Disorder prior to the onset of the stroke.  The most common psychological symptom of “Vascular Dementia” is depression.  The depression may arise from difficulty with psychological adjustment to their declined condition, or a general psychomotor retardation without any awareness as to their own psychological condition.  This takes the form of a significantly reduced reaction time, both simple and complex.  The person appears chronically fatigued, laconic, and wanting to be left alone.  This type of depression is often deemed to be “organic” in nature.

The neuropsychological treatment of “Vascular Dementia” is to first determine the exact nature of the deficits through testing.  If the patient is experiencing psychological symptoms of depression or delusions, the clinician must determine if the patient is aware of their abnormal state.  For example, psychotherapy is appropriate for an adjustment problem in a self-aware person, but inappropriate for a severely depressed person with no awareness of their symptoms.  Neuropsychologists use the patient’s remaining cognitive strengths to compensate for their deficits.  Please leave comments regarding this article in the space provided below.

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Stroke is the common term for a blocked or ruptured blood vessel in the brain.  What differentiates stroke from other neuropsychological conditions is its rapid onset.  Alzheimer’s Disease can manifest for years without much functional impairment, but a stroke is sudden and without definite rules.  Some people suffer with transient ischemic accidents, that are defined as transient neural vascular events without any lasting impairment.  The perception of no lasting impairment is made from brief conversations, and the observation that the patient is still ambulatory and functioning in their environment.  Over the last twenty years, every patient I have tested with a history of transient ischemic accidents possessed measurable cognitive impairment.

Many people wonder, especially if older, if they are experiencing a stroke, or question if they have suffered a stroke.  The most obvious sign of stroke is paralysis on one side of the body.  The paralysis evolves over a period of hours, and typically diminishes after the main damage has been realized.  It may take several months to regain strength in limbs, even longer to regain coordination, and longer still to recover visual-spatial skills affected by the stroke.  Unfortunately, most people are left with lasting impairment.  The primary question for the clinician and family is whether the patient can be made functional in their environment.  Many strokes do not present with hemiparesis.  These less common forms are often misdiagnosed and blamed on psychological distress or malingering.

For those people wondering if they are currently experiencing a stroke, there is not much firm research on early warning symptoms.  Family members often note periods of disorientation or even confusion prior to the onset of the stroke.  The patient often complains of headaches or visual disturbances, but rarely are they self-aware of clouded consciousness.  Long-term research into early warning signs has implicated depressive and anxious episodes occurring in an atypical fashion for up to two years before a stroke.  I have not interviewed a stroke patient in the last twenty years that talked about a depressive or anxiety disorder onset prior to their stroke.  Nearly all the hundreds of stroke patients I have tested denied any early warning sign(s) prior to the actual event.  While I used to question early warning signs actively as a young clinician, I rarely do so now.

Another big question is, if I have one stroke, will I have another?  The research available to this clinician suggests that the chance of having a second stroke after having only one stroke is no greater than the base rate in the general population.  A second stroke increases the statistical possibility of having a third or fourth stroke significantly.  As with so many medical conditions, high blood pressure and smoking cigarettes significantly increases the chance of stroke.  If you have endured one stroke, not two or more, do not smoke cigarettes, and keep your blood pressure under control, then you are at no greater risk for another stroke then anyone else you pass in the street.

What can be done to minimize the effect of a stroke?  The physician’s job is to keep the blood pressure down and observe the patient.  The neuropsychologist’s job is to establish a cognitive baseline, theorize about the patient’s premorbid level of functioning, and give behavioral recommendations regarding specific symptoms.  As a clinician, one has to keep in mind that brain scans performed on the day of the stroke will not display the full extent of the damage, and many scans that display brain damage are secondary to old strokes or a congenital malformation of the brain.  The neuropsychologist, therefore, is focused on the patient’s capabilities in the present, and how to maximize their functioning in all areas.  For example, I will place a greater clinical weight on a patient who is delirious after a stroke, who is not able to repeat three digits in a row, than a brain scan that reveals less damage than anticipated.  The brain scans are important, but the neuropsychologist will pay the most attention to current brain/behavior functioning.  The neuropsychologist is also focused on what factors in the patient’s life, especially medications, that could be slowing rehabilitation.  The rehabilitation research is clear that clinical depression slows the patient’s progress.

Neuropsychological treatment of stroke is heavily biased towards current cognitive and behavioral functioning.  We are focused on factors that could slow or halt progress in physical, occupational and speech therapy.  The main negative factors experienced by my patients are depression and medications.  The medications are likely helpful for most people, but may have unwanted effects in particular stroke patients.  Lastly, there is a strong outpatient planning in neuropsychology.  Often seemingly trivial relationship factors can sour a return to one’s home, such that mediating these troubles before a discharge is very desirable.  The neuropsychologist attempts to make the extended family a “treatment team.”  Please leave your comments on this post in the space provided below.

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