February is Heart Month. But did you know that heart health is directly related to brain health? There is an overwhelming amount of information alerting us to the risks of heart disease and stroke. These conditions can result in vascular dementia (VaD), the second leading form of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease.
There is a correlation between vascular dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. I recently talked to Dr. Jane Rylett, PhD, a scientist with the Robarts Research Institute, to find out more.
“Alzheimer’s disease is a dementia with a progressive pattern caused by the degeneration of nerve cells in the brain.” says Dr. Rylett. “While vascular dementia has similar symptoms, it is brought on by a series of mini strokes that cause damage to the brain vessels when the blood supply to the brain is reduced. The build up of damage can be associated with other changes to the brain that result in symptoms of dementia.”
Dr. Rylett says it’s difficult to tell after a mini stroke but there are warning signs. If vascular dementia is suspected, the doctor can order brain scans to check for damage or for narrowing of blood vessels. “There could be a temporary loss of vision, speech or numbness that you might not think is serious. One of the important things you can do is recognize and monitor the risk factors, which can increase the odds of having a stroke,” she advises.
Dr. Rylett sees diabetes as especially troubling. “In the U.S., 17-20 million people have Type 2 diabetes and another 20 million are in a pre-diabetic state. That’s more than the population of Canada,” she says.
Since 2005, scientists have been looking at Type 3 diabetes. This is caused when the brain doesn’t use its much needed energy supplies properly due to either poor diet or a brain’s impaired response to insulin. “There is a link between Type 3 diabetes and an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A report released last year found that an insulin spray helped improve cognitive skills and memory with Alzheimer’s patients. ”
There is not yet a cure for diabetes or vascular dementia, so prevention is crucial. That means lowering the risk of stroke, something we can all control and think about during Heart Month.