Facts, myths, and controversies in vascular dementia
Significant progress in the field of VaD resulted from publication of the NINIDS-AIREN Diagnostic Criteria for VaD (G.C. Roman, T.K. Tatemichi, T. Erkinjuntti, et al., Vascular dementia (VaD): diagnostic criteria for research studies. Report of the NINDS-AIREN International Workshop. Neurology 43 (1993) 250-260). Epidemiological studies confirmed the importance of VaD as the second most common cause of dementia in the elderly, representing 15-20% of all cases of dementia. In Europe and North America, Alzheimer's disease (AD) predominates over VaD in a 2:1 ratio; in contrast, in Japan and China VaD accounts for almost 50% of all dementias. Case-control studies have identified risk factors for VaD including ageing, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidemia, recurrent stroke, cardiac disease, smoking, sleep apnea, and more recently, hyperhomocysteinemia, among others. Hypertension treatment may prevent VaD and AD. This finding has enormous importance from the Public Health viewpoint to decrease the future number of patients with dementia in the elderly. Along with advances in the field of VaD came a number of controversies and damaging misconceptions and myths. Myth no. 1--Vascular dementia is a non-entity: The false idea that VaD does not exist is particularly destructive because it creates the perspective that VaD is unworthy of study or research. A condition that either does not exist or represents only a minute proportion of all cases of dementia in the elderly, lacks public health relevance and becomes a low priority for research by funding agencies and industry. In fact, vascular brain lesions are the commonest and most important component of dementia in the elderly. Myth no. 2--Vascular dementia is so difficult to diagnose that only experts can recognize and identify it accurately: VaD does exist and the diagnosis of post-stroke VaD, in particular is straightforward. Most cases fulfill NINDS-AIREN criteria for probable VaD; i.e., (1) there is acute onset of dementia demonstrated by impairment of memory and two other cognitive domains, such as orientation, praxis or executive dysfunction; (2) relevant cerebrovascular lesions are demonstrated by neuroimaging; and (3) a temporal relation between stroke and cognitive loss is evident. In the donepezil trials on VaD, post-stroke dementia represented about 75% of the >1,200 patients enrolled. Myth no. 3--Improvement in clinical trials of cholinergics in VaD is due to underlying AD, not to the vascular lesions. Experimental, clinical and pathological evidence has demonstrated cholinesterase deficits in VaD (independently of any concomitant AD pathology), including low acetylcholine in cerebrospinal fluid, and reduced choline acetyltransferase (ChAT) in the brain.