Vascular dementia

5. Who gets vascular dementia?

There are a number of things that can put someone at risk of developing vascular dementia. These are called risk factors. Most of these are things that contribute to underlying cardiovascular diseases. Some of these risk factors (eg lifestyle) can be controlled, but others (eg age and genes) cannot.

Age is the strongest risk factor for vascular dementia. A person's risk of developing the condition doubles approximately every five years over the age of 65. Vascular dementia under the age of 65 is uncommon and affects fewer than 8,000 people in the UK. Men are at slightly higher risk of developing vascular dementia than women.

A person who has had a stroke, or who has diabetes or heart disease, is approximately twice as likely to develop vascular dementia. Sleep apnoea, a condition where breathing stops for a few seconds or minutes during sleep, is also a possible risk factor. Someone can reduce their risk of dementia by keeping these conditions under control, through taking prescribed medicines (even if they feel well) and following professional advice about their lifestyle.

There is some evidence that a history of depression also increases the risk of vascular dementia. Anyone who thinks they may be depressed should seek their doctor's advice early.

Cardiovascular disease - and therefore vascular dementia - is linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and being overweight in mid-life. Someone can reduce their risk of developing these by having regular check-ups (over the age of 40), by not smoking, and by keeping physically active. It will also help to eat a healthy balanced diet and drink alcohol only in moderation.

Aside from these cardiovascular risk factors, there is good evidence that keeping mentally active throughout life reduces dementia risk. There is some evidence for the benefits of being socially active too.

Researchers think there are some genetic factors behind the common types of vascular dementia, and that these are linked to the underlying cardiovascular diseases. Someone with a family history of stroke, heart disease or diabetes has an increased risk of developing these conditions. Overall, however, the role of genes in the common types of vascular dementia is small.

People from certain ethnic groups are more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and vascular dementia than others. Those from an Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani or Sri Lankan background living in the UK have significantly higher rates of stroke, diabetes and heart disease than white Europeans. Among people of African-Caribbean descent, the risk of diabetes and stroke - but not heart disease - is also higher. These differences are thought to be partly inherited but mainly due to lifestyle factors such as diet, smoking and exercise.