White matter disease is a disease that affects the nerves that link various parts of the brain to each other and to the spinal cord. These nerves are also called white matter. White matter disease causes these areas to decline in their functionality. This disease is also referred to as leukoaraiosis.
A person with white matter disease will gradually have increasing difficulty with the ability to think. They’ll also have progressively worsening issues with balance.
White matter disease is an age-related, progressive disease. Age-related means that it usually affects older people. Progressive means that it gets worse over time. The life expectancy after a diagnosis of white matter disease depends on the speed it progresses and the severity of any other conditions it may cause, like stroke and dementia.
What are the symptoms?
Many symptoms of white matter disease don’t appear until the disease has become more advanced. The symptoms may be mild in the beginning and increase in severity over time.
Symptoms of white matter disease may include:
- issues with balance
- walking slow
- more frequent falls
- unable to do more than one thing at a time, like talking while walking
- unusual mood changes
What are the causes and risk factors?
There’s at least one study that seems to show that white matter disease may be caused by strokes so small they’re unnoticeable to those having them.
These small, unnoticeable strokes are also called silent strokes. These silent strokes are believed to damage white matter, and therefore cause white matter disease. There’s also some evidence that white matter disease may be a cause of vascular dementia. However, more research is needed.
Risk factors for white matter disease may include:
The most common risk factor is age, since this is an age-related disease.
Are there treatment options?
White matter disease doesn’t have a cure, but there are treatments that can help manage your symptoms. The primary treatment is physical therapy. Physical therapy can help with any balance and walking difficulties you may develop. Your overall physical and mental health can be improved when you’re able to walk and get around better with little or no assistance.
Based on current research, managing your vascular health may also be an effective way to manage the symptoms of white matter disease. Not smoking and taking needed blood pressure medications as directed may help slow the progression of the disease and your symptoms.
How is this diagnosed?
Your doctor can make a diagnosis of white matter disease by discussing your symptoms and using imaging tests. Many people with white matter disease go to their doctor complaining of balance problems. After asking you some specific questions about your symptoms, your doctor will likely order an MRI.
An MRI is a scan of your brain using magnetic resonance. To see the white matter of your brain, your doctor may use a specific type of MRI called T2 Flair. This type of MRI helps your doctor see the details of the white matter in your brain, as well as detect any abnormalities within the white matter.
These abnormalities show up as spots that are brighter than their surroundings. Both the amount of these abnormal bright spots as well as where the white matter abnormalities are located will help your doctor make a diagnosis.
The final diagnosis is made after your doctor considers the MRI, your cardiovascular health, and any symptoms you have.
The potential complications of white matter disease come from the symptoms and other medical conditions it may cause. Some potential complications of white matter disease include:
- balance issues that limit mobility
- vascular dementia
- cognitive difficulties
- poor outcome after a stroke
What’s the outlook?
If you’re experiencing any symptoms of white matter disease, it’s important that you discuss them with your doctor. There may be a treatment that can help slow or manage your symptoms.
The research into white matter disease is ongoing. However, it looks promising that white matter disease may be caused by mini, silent strokes. If this is the case, researchers may one day be able to prevent and treat white matter disease. Knowing the cause may also enable doctors to eventually be able to treat and possibly even prevent vascular dementia.