Small vessel diseases (SVDs) of the brain are likely to become increasingly common in tandem with the rise in the aging population. In recent years, neuroimaging and pathological studies have informed on the pathogenesis of sporadic SVD and several single gene (monogenic) disorders predisposing to subcortical strokes and diffuse white matter disease. However, one of the limitations toward studying SVD lies in the lack of consistent assessment criteria and lesion burden for both clinical and pathological measures. Arteriolosclerosis and diffuse white matter changes are the hallmark features of both sporadic and hereditary SVDs. The pathogenesis of the arteriopathy is the key to understanding the differential progression of disease in various SVDs. Remarkably, quantification of microvascular abnormalities in sporadic and hereditary SVDs has shown that qualitatively the processes involved in arteriolar degeneration are largely similar in sporadic SVD compared with hereditary disorders such as cerebral autosomal arteriopathy with subcortical infarcts and leukoencephalopathy (CADASIL). Important significant regional differences in lesion location within the brain may enable one to distinguish SVDs, where frontal lobe involvement appears consistently with almost every SVD, but others bear specific pathologies in other lobes, such as the temporal pole in CADASIL and the pons in pontine autosomal dominant microangiopathy and leukoencephalopathy or PADMAL. Additionally, degenerative changes in the vascular smooth muscle cells, the cerebral endothelium and the basal lamina are often rapid and more aggressive in genetic disorders. Further quantification of other microvascular elements and even neuronal cells is needed to fully characterize SVD pathogenesis and to differentiate the usefulness of vascular interventions and treatments on the resulting pathology.