What Is Cerebrovascular Disease?

Medically Reviewed By Seunggu Han, M.D.
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Cerebrovascular diseases are those that affect blood flow in the brain. “Cerebro” refers to brain and “vascular” refers to arteries and veins. The main cerebrovascular diseases are stroke, carotid artery stenosis, aneurysms, and vascular malformations.

Similar to vascular diseases affecting the heart, certain modifiable lifestyle factors play a role in some cerebrovascular diseases. These factors include high blood pressure, smoking, and diabetes.

Some, but not all cerebrovascular diseases are medical emergencies.

Read on to learn more about cerebrovascular diseases, including causes, risk factors, and treatment.

Cerebrovascular disease explained

brain concept with tangled rubber thread
Colin Anderson/Stocksy United

Cerebrovascular disease is an umbrella term describing diseases that affect blood flow to or within the brain. Some of these conditions start in blood vessels that supply blood to the brain.

The carotid arteries on either side of your neck and the vertebral arteries along the spinal column supply the brain with blood, oxygen, and nutrients, explains the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS). You can feel your pulse through the carotid arteries when you place your finger against the front side of your neck. You cannot feel the vertebral arteries.

Blockages in these arteries or the smaller arteries they feed into can disrupt blood flow to the brain. The brain needs a constant supply of oxygen. Therefore, a block for more than a few minutes can be damaging and lead to a loss of brain function. Oftentimes, the cause of the block is a buildup of plaque inside the carotid arteries.

Other cerebrovascular conditions involve blood vessels within the brain or the skull, also known as the cranium. These include vascular malformations and aneurysms.

Cerebrovascular disease statistics

Stroke is the most common cerebrovascular disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 3.1% of adults, or 7.8 million people, have had a stroke.

Although the risk of stroke increases with age, younger adults are also at risk.

A 2019 report of cerebrovascular disease burden in the United States from 2006 to 2014 shows that the rate of cerebrovascular disease in people aged 35–64 increased by 19%. Additionally, there was a 48% increase in emergency room visits attributed to cerebrovascular diseases. For adults 65 and older, cerebrovascular disease events declined. There was no change in emergency room visits over the same period for this age group.

Cerebrovascular disease is the most common life threatening neurological event in the U.S., according to the AANS.

Stroke

Stroke is loss of brain function due to a sudden block in blood flow to the brain. Usually, the block is from a blood clot or piece of plaque breaking off and getting stuck in a blood vessel. This is ischemic stroke. Loss of function is specific to the part of the brain that did not receive oxygen.

Strokes are common. Annually, more than 795,000 people have a stroke. It can cause significant disability and death.

Risk factors

Most risk factors for stroke are modifiable. This means that you, along with your doctor, can change them. Risk factors for stroke include:

Symptoms

Stroke symptoms usually develop suddenly and include:

Treatment

Treatment includes medications and procedures to remove the block and restore blood flow as quickly as possible.

Another type of stroke is hemorrhagic. This is when a blood vessel ruptures and bleeds into brain tissue. This type of stroke can also increase the pressure inside the skull. Treatment includes procedures to stop the bleeding and reduce intracranial pressure.

Transient ischemic attack

A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a temporary ischemic stroke. It does not last long enough to cause permanent damage. The temporary blockage in blood flow causes some stroke symptoms. However, they go away in a few minutes when the clot or plaque breaks down.

Carotid artery stenosis

Stenosis means narrowing. Other names for this disease are carotid artery disease and carotid stenosis.

Stenosis takes years to develop. It starts as a layer of cholesterol-containing plaque along the inner wall of the arteries. With time, this causes atherosclerosis, or “hardening of the arteries.” This reduces the amount of blood and oxygen to the brain, which can cause a stroke or TIA.

Risk factors for carotid artery stenosis are the same as for stroke. There are usually no symptoms until the blockage is severe. A medical professional may be able to detect a problem by listening to blood flow through the arteries with a stethoscope. An ultrasound or other imaging tests can show if you have stenosis.

Treatment

Depending on the severity of disease, options may include:

  • lifestyle modifications
  • medications
  • surgery to remove the plaque
  • angioplasty and stenting

Aneurysm

An aneurysm is an area of a blood vessel wall that weakens. The weak area can stretch outward like a balloon.

A cerebral aneurysm is in the brain. A common name for it is a brain aneurysm. An intracranial aneurysm is inside the skull but outside the brain. Aneurysms can rupture, spilling blood into the surrounding area. This hemorrhage can damage brain cells. Learn about cerebral hemorrhage.

Similar to stroke, aneurysms can cause brain damage, paralysis, or coma. According to the AANS, 50% of ruptured brain aneurysms are fatal.

Risk factors

Factors that increase the chance of aneurysms include:

Symptoms

Most often, there are no symptoms of an intact aneurysm. If there is a rupture, symptoms may include:

Treatment

Neurosurgeons treat unruptured aneurysms by blocking blood supply to them. Two main methods are surgery and endovascular repair. Surgery requires opening the skull. Endovascular repair accesses the aneurysm from inside the blood vessel.

Arteriovenous malformations

Arteriovenous malformations (AVMs) are atypical connections between blood vessels. They form during brain development. AVMs are not inherited, so they appear to occur by chance.

AVMs may cause problems because they have a higher tendency to bleed compared with typical blood vessels. They can occur anywhere, but brain AVMs pose a greater threat when they bleed, or hemorrhage. Less than 1% of the population has a brain AVM, according to the American Stroke Association. Most do not bleed.

Symptoms

AVM symptoms depend on its location and size. Possible symptoms include:

Treatment

AVM treatment depends on the risk of it rupturing, its location and symptoms, and other factors. Options may include:

Cerebrovascular disease diagnosis

Imaging tests are the main way to diagnose cerebrovascular diseases. Imaging and other diagnostic tests include:

FAQ

Seunggu Han, M.D., has reviewed the following frequently asked questions.

What is the most common form of cerebrovascular disease?

Ischemic stroke is the most common form of cerebrovascular disease.

Is cerebrovascular disease the same as stroke?

No. Stroke is a type or a result of cerebrovascular disease, which includes carotid artery stenosis, brain aneurysm, and vascular malformations. Since cerebrovascular disease can frequently result in or include strokes, some educational materials may discuss them as the same.

Summary

Cerebrovascular disease refers to vascular conditions that cause bleeding or affect blood flow in an area of the brain. A lack of blood means the brain does not get as much oxygen as it needs to survive, and brain cells die.

Cerebrovascular diseases are life threatening and a significant cause of disability.

The most common cerebrovascular disease is ischemic stroke. You can reduce your chance of stroke by leading a healthy lifestyle. This includes managing conditions, such as high blood pressure, that increase the chance of stroke.

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Medical Reviewer: Seunggu Han, M.D.
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 12
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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