When you get into your car, you expect it to start promptly and take you where you want to go without any problem. That is a reasonable expectation if you have filled it with gas, put air in the tires, and given it a regular tune-up. So what have you done for your brain lately? Do you give it plenty of fast food, second-hand smoke and stress? How is it running today?
Memory loss is not only caused by Alzheimer’s disease. In this article, we want to discuss a different cause of memory loss: Vascular Brain Injury – or stroke.
What is Vascular Brain Injury (VBI)?
Another name for VBI is cerebrovascular disease. It is damage to the blood vessels (“vascular”) in your brain (“cerebro-“). According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, cerebrovascular disease “includes all disorders in which an area of the brain is temporarily or permanently affected by ischemia [reduced blood flow] or bleeding and one or more of the cerebral blood vessels are involved” (AANS).
In a study reported in ScienceNews in February 2013, vascular brain injury was found to be a clearer indication of early mental impairment than was the presence of amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The “injury” is not necessarily a sudden blow to the head, but any condition that causes damage to the blood vessels in the brain over time, according to a study carried out atUniversity of California Davis.
What causes VBI?
Hypertension or high blood pressure damages all of the body’s blood vessels over time, causing them to lose their elasticity. When this happens to blood vessels in the brain, physical or mental functions can be reduced. Stroke, also called a Cerebral Vascular Accident (CVA), is the sudden reduction in blood flow to an area of the brain, such as a blood clot or cholesterol plaque in a blood vessel or a rupture in a weakened vessel causing bleeding into the brain. Severe trauma to the brain (concussion) such as a fall or other blow to the head can cause blood vessels to spasm, temporarily reducing blood flow to area(s) fed by those vessels. The result is called an infarct which is like a bruise in the brain and can be mild and temporary or very severe and virtually permanent. Doctors utilize MRI brain scans to get a clearer picture of the damage done to your brain and determine the appropriate treatment.
What are the effects of VBI on brain function?
The answer to this question depends on the severity and duration of reduced blood flow and on the area(s) of the brain where it occurs. Each area of the brain controls a different physical, mental or emotional function. Lack of oxygen causes brain cells to weaken or die. When the higher centers of the brain are damaged in this way, problems with day-to-day memory, language, planning, problem-solving or attention can result. The study noted above looked at 61 people aged 65 to 90, half of whom had normal brain functions and half had some cognitive impairment. The participants were given MRI scans as well as PET scans which are used to detect amyloid plaques associated with Alzheimer’s disease. The results indicated that the more evidence of VBI they had, the more likely they were to experience reduced mental function. In fact, VBI was more closely related with decreased mental function than amyloid plaques.
What can be done to prevent VBI?
Prevention begins with a healthy lifestyle. Proper nutrition, regular exercise, and stress management are essential to maintaining healthy weight and blood pressure and preventing blood clots. Relaxation techniques include meditation, gentle breathing exercises and daily reflection time, among others. Sensible safety habits help prevent falls and other accidents. Regular medical exams may detect need for lifestyle changes. When lifestyle has not been healthy, medications may be needed to control blood pressure and medical conditions that lead to it, such as obesity, diabetes and high cholesterol.
It is important to keep in mind that cognitive impairment may be mild and could even be the result of stress or depression. When mild memory, language or problem solving difficulties arise and continue, a simple memory test can indicate whether there is cause for further workup. If you are concerned, see your medical provider. Tell him or her about any high blood pressure, stroke symptoms, blood clots, and head injuries in your past. Ask if you might have cerebrovascular disease and what additional steps you need to take to control it. Take daily care of your brain with good food, exercise, safety and stress reduction. Your brain will thank you.
University of California - Davis Health System (2013, February 11). Vascular brain injury greater risk factor than amyloid plaques in cognitive aging. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 22, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2013/02/130211162335.htm
American Assn. of Neurological Surgeons (AANS) website. Retrieved 2/21, 2013 from http://www.aans.org/Patient%20Information/Conditions%20and%20Treatments/Cerebrovascular%20Disease.aspx
Stroke Symptoms - Warning signs may include some or all of the following symptoms, which are usually sudden:
- Dizziness, nausea, or vomiting
- Unusually severe headache
- Confusion, disorientation or memory loss
- Numbness, weakness in an arm, leg or the face, especially on one side
- Abnormal or slurred speech
- Difficulty with comprehension
- Loss of vision or difficulty seeing
- Loss of balance, coordination, or the ability to walk (AANS)