I can still remember when my Grandfather passed away. It was the first time anyone had died that I actually knew. I was devastated and wanted to know what had happened to this generous old man beloved by so many grandchildren.
My dad told me then, some 55 years ago, that my grandfather died of “hardening of the arteries.”
Memories of Grandpa were pleasant ones from my youth when we traveled across the country to spend two weeks each summer on the family farm. My grandfather designated an entire row of watermelons and numerous cousins arrived on “watermelon” day.
At my grandfather’s shout, the children raced through lush green fields until we all came upon the watermelon patch and the assigned “grandkids only row.” One row that looked like a 100 others was sectioned off with heavy rope. No spoons, forks or knives required. We were allowed to run free in this single row, scrambling in pairs to lift monstrous melons, then drop them with a plop until they popped open and exposed a heart of juicy ripe, red fruit. Then it was fingers only, the tool of Grandpa’s choice.
My grandfather died of “hardening of the arteries,” I was told. I didn’t know what made your arteries harden, but at the time I only hoped it would never happen to me. My dad said it was age, Grandpa was old, and I reasoned that the older you got the harder your arteries became until you finally died. I felt sad. My grandfather passed away more than 55 years ago and I had almost forgotten his cause of death until my own Mom passed away 6 years ago from Alzheimer’s Dementia.
As I researched Mom’s medical condition, Alzheimer’s Dementia, I also learned about “Hardening of the Arteries.” I learned that hardening of the arteries does not make the arteries of the brain hard at all, nor does it cause dementing illnesses by hardening the arteries of the brain as I had believed happened to my Grandfather all those years ago.
Actually, my grandfather had survived a stroke that eventually led to dementia and his death.
What we do know is that Multi-infarct (Vascular Dementia) is when repeated strokes destroy small areas of the brain. More and more areas are damaged by these small strokes and eventually this cumulative brain damage leads to Dementia.
These multiple strokes are the second most common cause of Dementia. If we can find a way to stop the strokes or improve rehabilitation after a stroke, thousands of people would benefit.
A few ways this brain damage occurs are:
- Clogged vessels means that less oxygen can get to the brain
- Plaque clogging the arteries can break off, blocking a vessel and causing a stroke
- Mini strokes easily go undetected and, therefore, untreated
- High-fat diets cause plaque to build up in the brain
If you have had any small strokes, called transient ischemic attacks, ask your doctor about getting an ultrasound exam of your carotid artery in your neck and possibly of your brain to look for blockages.
Much research is being done at this time to determine how hypertension, obesity, diet, smoking, heart disease, and other factors increase people’s vulnerability to strokes and vascular dementia. They’re also studying the difference between larger strokes and multiple strokes that cause dementia.
Other research is being done to study different areas of the brain and Vascular Dementia; Which areas of the brain are most likely to be affected, and what changes take place in brain chemistry after a stroke. They are examining the effectiveness of drugs to prevent strokes, dilating blood vessels, increasing oxygen supply to the brain and prevent blood clotting.
Sometimes the cause of these strokes can be identified and treated. In that case, further damage will be stopped. Some recent studies suggest low dose aspirin may slow the progression of this disease too.
Vascular Dementia (called “hardening of the arteries” by many) usually progresses in a step-like fashion. Sometimes you can look back and remember certain times when the patient became much worse than the day before. Then it may be an extended period of time before they get worse again. Some of these dementias may get worse as time passes but others may go for many years without any sign of decline. Which could be because the reason for the small strokes has been corrected.
Alzheimer’s Dementia progresses in a more steady pattern with a slow, constant decline that is hardly perceptible as the patient grows worse over time.
It is possible also, for patients to have more than one kind of Dementia. They could have Alzheimer’s and Vascular Dementia at the same time.
So now I understand that my Grandfather also had Dementia, although it was known by another name, “Hardening of the Arteries.” Scientists and research has come along way since the days of my Grandfather’s death. Hopefully, by the time my grandchildren are in their fifties, there will be many new cures and diagnoses for every form of Dementia.
What is Dementia?: Understanding Dementia is the First Step to Confident Dementia CareStill AliceDementia: What You Need to Know: A Guide for People With Dementia, and Their CaregiversAlzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was a Cure?