vascular dementia

Parkinson's Disease Dementia

Prevalence of Parkinson's Disease

After Alzheimer's disease, the second most common neurodegenerative disorder is Parkinson’s disease. In the U.S., at least 500,000 are believed to have Parkinson’s, and about 50,000 new cases are diagnosed every year1 (I have seen other estimates of 1 million and 1.5 million — and researchers saying the numbers are consistently over-estimated while others that they are consistently under-estimated!). In the U.K., the numbers are 120,000 and 10,0002.

Part of the problem in estimating national and global prevalence is that Parkinson's is very much affected by environmental factors. The Amish, Nebraska, the area around the ferromanganese plants in Breccia (Italy), and the Parsi of Mumbai (India), have the highest rates of Parkinson's in the world. Pesticide use, and some occupations and foods, are all thought to increase the risk of Parkinson's. So is head trauma.

There may also be ethnic differences. A recent analysis of Medicare data3 from more than 450,000 patients with PD in the United States has found substantial variation between whites, African Americans, and Asians, with whites showing dramatically greater rates (158.21 per 100,000 in white men compared to 75.57 and 84.95 for African Americans and Asians, respectively). These differences, however, may well reflect factors other than ethnicity, given the significant role that environmental factors play in Parkinson's. Most patients were found to live in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions (areas with very high proportions of whites).

Of course Parkinson’s, like Alzheimer’s, is a disorder of age (although in both cases, a minority suffer early onset). Figures from a 1997 European study4 that estimated the overall, age-adjusted prevalence in Europe at 1.6% gave this age breakdown:
65-69: 0.6%
70-74: 1.0%
75-79: 2.7%
80-84: 3.6%
85-89: 3.5%
As you can see, there is a sharp rise in the later half of the 70s, rising to a peak in the 80s (studies suggest it declines in the 90s).

Risk of developing dementia

Parkinson’s is of course primarily a movement disorder, not a cognitive one. However, it can lead to dementia. As with the numbers of Parkinson's sufferers, the risk of that is so variously estimated that estimates range from 20-80%!

Part of the problem is disentangling mortality — as with Alzheimer’s, many die before the symptoms of dementia have had time to develop. It is helpful to deconstruct that top statistic.

The 2003 Norwegian study5 that appears to be the source of this 80% calculated an 8-year prevalence estimate of 78.2% from an 8 year study involving 224 Parkinson’s patients. At the beginning of the study, 51 of these 224 had dementia. After 4 years, 36 of the non-demented had died, and 7 refused to continue their participation; of the 51 demented, 42 had died (according to my calculations – this figure, and several others, were not given). Of the 139 patients remaining in the study at year 4, 43 of the previously non-demented had developed dementia, meaning (according to my calculations) that 52 in total now had dementia, and 87 had not. After another 4 years, there were only 87 patients remaining in the study, 19 of those 87 non-demented having died, a further 3 refusing to continue, and (my calculation) 30 of the 52 demented having died. At this time, year 8, 28 of the previously non-demented had now developed dementia, leaving (my calculation) 37 non-demented survivors.

In other words, over a period of 8 years, after having had Parkinson’s for over 9 years, on average, when the study began, just over half (54.5%; 122/224) developed dementia. About the same number (56.7%; 127) had died. At that point, after having had Parkinson’s for an average of 17 years (they were now on average 73 years old), 50 (22%) were still alive but with dementia, and 37 (16.5%) were still alive and non-demented (the percentage is only slightly increased by subtracting those who refused to continue participating).

Importantly, those 37 had no more cognitive decline than was evident in age-matched controls.

Note also that the average life expectancy after being diagnosed with Parkinson's is about 9 years -- hence, those who participated were already at this point at the beginning of the study. We don't know how many people developed dementia and died between diagnosis and the study beginning, but we do know that 23% (51/224) had dementia at the beginning of the study, after having had Parkinson's for an average of 11 years (their average was higher than the group average) -- which is already longer than the average survival rate.

In other words, we need a study that follows PD sufferers from diagnosis until death to truly give an accurate estimate of the likelihood of developing dementia before death. We can however give an estimate of how many people survive PD for 17 years (nearly twice the average survival time) without developing dementia: 16.5% -- which is approaching half (42.5%) the number of people who survive that long.

We can also estimate how many PD sufferers who have had PD for an average of 9 years will not have dementia: 77% (173/224 — the number of non-demented at the beginning of the study). And how many will not have dementia after 13 years: 63% (87/139 — the number of non-demented at year 4 of the study).

The big question is of course, are there any signs that indicate which individuals will develop dementia. The researchers found6 that age, hallucinations, and more severe motor problems were all risk factors for developing dementia.

For more on Parkinson's:

Check out this youtube video:

See these websites:

Check out these books:

  1. From the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke website:
  2. From the National Health Service website:
  3. De Rijk, M.C. et al. 1997. Prevalence of parkinsonism and Parkinson's disease in Europe: the EUROPARKINSON Collaborative Study. European Community Concerted Action on the Epidemiology of Parkinson's disease. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 62(1), 10-5.
  4. De Rijk, M.C. et al. 1997. Prevalence of parkinsonism and Parkinson's disease in Europe: the EUROPARKINSON Collaborative Study. European Community Concerted Action on the Epidemiology of Parkinson's disease. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery & Psychiatry, 62(1), 10-5.
  5. Aarsland, D. et al. 2003. Prevalence and characteristics of dementia in Parkinson disease: an 8-year prospective study. Archives of Neurology, 60(3), 387-92.
  6. Aarsland, D. et al. 2004. The Rate of Cognitive Decline in Parkinson Disease. Archives of Neurology, 61, 1906-1911.

Vascular & Mixed Dementia


Vascular dementia, as its name suggests, is caused by poor blood flow, produced by a single, localized stroke, or series of strokes.

It is the second most common dementia, accounting for perhaps 17% of dementias. It also co-occurs with Alzheimer's in 25-45% of cases. Although there are other types of dementia that also co-occur with Alzheimer's, mixed dementia generally refers to the co-occurrence of Alzheimer's and vascular dementia.

Risk factors

In general, unsurprisingly, vascular dementia has the same risk factors as cerebrovascular disease.

A study1 of 173 people from the Scottish Mental Survey of 1932 who have developed dementia has found that, compared to matched controls, those with vascular dementia were 40% more likely to have low IQ scores when they were children than the people who did not develop dementia. Because this was not true for those with Alzheimer's disease, it suggests that low childhood IQ may act as a risk factor for vascular dementia through vascular risks rather than the "cognitive reserve" theory.


The exciting thing about vascular dementia is that it is far more preventable than other forms of dementia. As with risk, as a general rule, the same things that help you protect you from heart attacks and stroke will help protect you from vascular dementia. This means diet, and it means exercise.

A four-year study2 involving 749 older adults has found that the top one-third of participants who exerted the most energy in moderate activities such as walking were significantly less likely to develop vascular dementia than those people in the bottom one-third of the group.


Apart from normal medical treatment for cerebrovascular problems, there are a couple of interesting Chinese studies that have looked specifically at vascular dementia.

The herb gastrodine has been used in China for centuries to treat disorders such as dizziness, headache and even ischemic stroke. A 12-week, randomized, double-blind trial3 involving 120 stroke patients who were diagnosed with mild to moderate vascular dementia has found that  gastrodine and Duxil® (a drug used to treat stroke patients in China) produced similar overall levels of cognitive improvement -- although more patients showed 'much improvement' with gastrodine (23% vs 14%).

A Chinese pilot study4 involving 25 patients with mild to moderate vascular dementia found that ginseng compound significantly improved their average memory function after 12 weeks, but more research (larger samples, placebo-controls) is needed before this finding can be confirmed. Five years on I have still not seen such a study.

  1. McGurn, B., Deary, I.J. & Starr, J.M. 2008. Childhood cognitive ability and risk of late-onset Alzheimer and vascular dementia. Neurology, first published on June 25, 2008 as doi: doi:10.1212/01.wnl.0000319692.20283.10
  2. Ravaglia, G. et al. 2007. Physical activity and dementia risk in the elderly. Findings from a prospective Italian study. Neurology, published online ahead of print December 19.
  3. Tian, J.Z. et al. 2003. A double-blind, randomized controlled clinical trial of compound of Gastrodine in treatment of mild and moderate vascular dementia in Beijing, China. Presented at the American Heart Association's Second Asia Pacific Scientific Forum in Honolulu on June 10.
  4. Tian, J.Z. et al. 2003. Presented at the American Stroke Association's 28th International Stroke Conference on February 14 in Phoenix. Press release

Importance of vascular factors in Alzheimer's disease

Analysis of 5715 cases from the National Alzheimer's Coordinating Center (NACC) database has found that nearly 80% of more than 4600 Alzheimer's disease patients showed some degree of vascular pathology, compared with 67% of the controls, and 66% in the Parkinson's group. The link was especially strong for younger patients with Alzheimer’s.

Vascular changes in neck may link to Alzheimer’s

The jugular venous reflux (JVR) occurs when the pressure gradient reverses the direction of blood flow in the veins, causing blood to leak backwards into the brain. A small pilot study has found an association between JVR and white matter

Late-life depression increases dementia risk

depressed older adult

Late-life depression is associated with an increased risk for all-cause dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and, most predominantly, vascular dementia, a new study shows.

Gene doubles Alzheimer’s risk in African Americans

Million man march

A study involving nearly 6,000 African American older adults has found those with a specific gene variant have almost double the risk of developing late-onset Alzheimer’s disease compared with African Americans who lack the variant. The size of the effect is comparable to that of the ‘Alzheimer’s gene’, APOE-e4.

Eye health related to brain health in older adults

A large, long-running study has found cognitive decline and brain lesions are linked to mild retinal damage in older women.

Damage to the retina (retinopathy) doesn’t produce noticeable symptoms in the early stages, but a new study indicates it may be a symptom of more widespread damage. In the ten-year study, involving 511 older women (average age 69), 7.6% (39) were found to have retinopathy. These women tended to have lower cognitive performance, and brain scans revealed that they had more areas of small vascular damage within the brain — 47% more overall, and 68% more in the parietal lobe specifically. They also had more white matter damage. They did not have any more brain atrophy.

These correlations remained after high blood pressure and diabetes (the two major risk factors for retinopathy) were taken into account. It’s estimated that 40-45% of those with diabetes have retinopathy.

Those with retinopathy performed similarly to those without on a visual acuity test. However, testing for retinopathy is a simple test that should routinely be carried out by an optometrist in older adults, or those with diabetes or hypertension.

The findings suggest that eye screening could identify developing vascular damage in the brain, enabling lifestyle or drug interventions to begin earlier, when they could do most good. The findings also add to the reasons why you shouldn’t ignore pre-hypertensive and pre-diabetic conditions.

More evidence moderate alcohol consumption helps stave off dementia

More evidence that a moderate amount of alcohol helps protect against Alzheimer’s —but not vascular dementia or age-related cognitive decline.

A review of 23 longitudinal studies of older adults (65+) has found that small amounts of alcohol were associated with lower incidence rates of overall dementia and Alzheimer dementia, but not of vascular dementia or age-related cognitive decline. A three-year German study involving 3,327 adults aged 75+ extends the evidence to the older-old.

The study found alcohol consumption was significantly associated with 3 other factors that helped protect against dementia: better education, not living alone, and absence of depression. Nevertheless, the lower risk remained after accounting for these factors.

The ‘magic’ amount of alcohol was between 20-29g, roughly 2-3 drinks a day. As in other studies, a U-shaped effect was found, with higher risk found among both those who consumed less than this amount of alcohol, and those who consumed more.

Migraines and headaches linked to more brain lesions in older adults

Older adults who have a history of severe headaches are more likely to have a greater number of brain lesions, but do not show greater cognitive impairment (within the study time-frame).

Lesions of the brain microvessels include white-matter hyperintensities and the much less common silent infarcts leading to loss of white-matter tissue. White-matter hyperintensities are common in the elderly, and are generally regarded as ‘normal’ (although a recent study suggested we should be less blasé about them — that ‘normal’ age-related cognitive decline reflects the presence of these small lesions). However, the degree of white-matter lesions is related to the severity of decline (including increasing the risk of Alzheimer’s), and those with hypertension or diabetes are more likely to have a high number of them.

A new study has investigated the theory that migraines might also lead to a higher number of white-matter hyperintensities. The ten-year French population study involved 780 older adults (65+; mean age 69). A fifth of the participants (21%) reported a history of severe headaches, of which 71% had migraines.

Those with severe headaches were twice as likely to have a high quantity of white-matter hyperintensities as those without headaches. However, there was no difference in cognitive performance between the groups. Those who suffered from migraines with aura (2% of the total), also showed an increased number of silent cerebral infarcts — a finding consistent with other research showing that people suffering from migraine with aura have an increased risk of cerebral infarction (or strokes). But again, no cognitive decline was observed.

The researchers make much of their failure to find cognitive impairment, but I would note that, nevertheless, the increased number of brain lesions does suggest that, further down the track, there is likely to be an effect on cognitive performance. Still, headache sufferers can take comfort in the findings, which indicate the effect is not so great that it shows up in this decade-long study.

Heavy smoking in midlife associated with dementia in later years

A very large long-running study has found smoking over two packs per day in middle age more than doubled the chances of developing dementia in later life.

Data from 21,123 people, surveyed between 1978 and 1985 when in their 50s and tracked for dementia from 1994 to 2008, has revealed that those who smoked more than two packs per day in middle age had more than twice the risk of developing dementia, both Alzheimer's and vascular dementia, compared to non-smokers.

A quarter of the participants (25.4%) were diagnosed with dementia during the 23 years follow-up, of whom a little over 20% were diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and nearly 8% with vascular dementia.

Former smokers, or those who smoked less than half a pack per day, did not appear to be at increased risk. Associations between smoking and dementia did not vary by race or sex.

Smoking is a well-established risk factor for stroke, and is also known to contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation.


[1934] Rusanen, M., Kivipelto M., Quesenberry C. P., Zhou J., & Whitmer R. A. (2010).  Heavy Smoking in Midlife and Long-term Risk of Alzheimer Disease and Vascular Dementia. Arch Intern Med. archinternmed.2010.393 - archinternmed.2010.393.

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