Can strokes cause small vessel disease?

Most of us are aware of the dangers of stroke and the associated symptoms—sudden weakness or paralysis, trouble speaking, vision problems, severe headaches and sudden dizziness. But did you know Canadians are five to six times more likely to suffer silent strokes that can mimic many of the symptoms of old age?

Increasingly, researchers are linking these so-called covert strokes to Small Vessel Disease, a condition that results from damage to blood vessels deep within the brain. Patients with Small Vessel Disease may exhibit a loss of cognitive abilities, such as reasoning and planning, changes in mood, loss of balance and incontinence.

Because these are commonly associated symptoms of aging, covert strokes are often not diagnosed or treated.

Dr. Paul Katz

“At Baycrest, we see many older adults who may be prone to falls or who have developed dementia that can be attributed to Small Vessel Disease,” says Dr. Paul Katz, Baycrest Health Sciences’ Vice President Medical Services and Chief of Staff.  “In some cases, they or their families just assumed age was the culprit, and were unaware that small but serious strokes were gradually accumulating in the brain and causing the problems.”

And while age is a factor, other risks are equally important to avoid or treat appropriately:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Physical inactivity
  • Smoking
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Stress

“If you have covert strokes, you are more likely to develop dementia over the next five years, and are also at a higher risk for suffering an overt stroke,” says Dr. Katz. “For this reason, Baycrest is putting a great deal of attention on researching Small Vessel Disease and in treating older adults who are suffering from its effects.”

Baycrest is part of the Canadian Partnership for Stroke Recovery, which has identified Small Vessel Disease as a key area of research. With the goal of helping people heal after stroke, our scientists at the Rotman Research Institute are involved in the following projects:

  • Co-developing the world’s first virtual brain, a real and usable open simulation of the human brain. This project has the potential to revolutionize how clinicians assess and treat various brain disorders, including cognitive impairment from stroke.
  • Exploring the use of new computational linguistics tools to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cognitive impairment. This work focuses on how language is processed in the brain, with emphasis on how undamaged neural pathways can be used to recover cognitive and linguistic abilities.

And on our campus, we help rehabilitate clients with Small Vessel Disease by providing them with strategies to manage day-to-day tasks–whether it’s as simple as getting dressed or handling money or shopping. The tools patients acquire enable them to go on to identify personal challenges and devise their own solutions in everyday life.