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The downlow on dementia: your questions, answered


We’ve all been there: you walk into a room only to forget why you went there in the first place. Or you suddenly realize you forgot about an important appointment or meeting you scheduled. These forgetful moments can be entirely normal or a sign of something more serious. 

Tryon Medical Partners internal medicine doctor Dr. Cunningham sees patients every day to guide them through their most difficult health conditions, including dementia. She answers some key questions about memory health, everything from the signs and symptoms of dementia to tips on keeping your brain healthy. 

How do I know if my forgetfulness is a warning sign of something more serious?

Dr. Cunningham shares that most concerns about memory health begin with patients above the age of 70. Typically, age-related memory loss may look like: being unable to remember details of a conversation or event that took place a year ago, forgetting the name of an acquaintance, or occasional difficulty finding words. Warning signs of something more serious may look like: chronic issues with short-term memory (events that happened in the last few days or week) and issues performing more complicated tasks, like managing finances.

“It is often quite difficult to know whether it is normal age-related memory loss or something more serious,” Dr. Cunningham says. “Especially because you’re often relying on the account from the person whose memory is in question.”

What causes dementia?

Dr. Cunningham shares that there are many different causes of dementia: 

  • Alzheimer’s Disease. By far, the most common cause of dementia. A small percentage of Alzheimer’s cases are related to mutations of three genes, which can be passed down from parent to child. 
  • Vascular Dementia. Caused by damage to the vessels that supply blood to your brain. Common signs of this kind of dementia include issues with problem-solving, slowed thinking and loss of focus and organization. 
  • Lewy Body Dementia. This is one of the more common types of progressive dementia. Symptoms include acting out one’s dreams in their sleep, seeing things that aren’t there and difficulty with focus and attention. 
  • Frontotemporal dementia. This is caused by the breakdown of nerve cells and their connections in the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Common symptoms affect behavior, personality, thinking, judgment and language and movement.

Is there any way to prevent dementia from developing?

Throughout your lifetime, there are several ways to prevent dementia from occurring or progressing. These include: 

  • Staying as physically active as possible
  • Engaging in community and social activity (especially from middle age onwards)
  • Intentionally use your brain to stay cognitively active (including playing memory games) 
  • Protecting your brain from accidents and injury (wearing a seatbelt in the car, wearing a helmet while biking, etc.) 
  • Focusing on blood vessel health (maintaining a healthy blood pressure and treating high blood pressure if it occurs)
  • Keeping cholesterol and diabetes under control
  • Eating a balanced diet (some studies show the Mediterranean diet could be especially helpful) 
  • Avoiding excessive alcohol intake 

“It’s never too early to think about brain health,” Dr. Cunningham points out. “Whether you’re 18 or 103 years old, brain health is important and you can mitigate your risk for dementia.”  

What kind of treatment options are available for dementia?

It’s most important to know that every patient and family’s experience with dementia is different, so treatment options and response will vary as well. In terms of existing treatments, there are three commonly prescribed medications for Alzheimer’s specifically: galantamine, rivastigmine and donepezil. While nothing can reverse the progression of dementia, these drugs can work to slow it down. The best case scenario is that memory loss doesn’t worsen and the dementia patient can maintain their current quality of life, by independently shopping, paying their bills, cleaning their house, cooking and generally going about their daily life. 

“When patients receive a diagnosis, they don’t know what to expect, and it can be frightening,” Dr. Cunningham empathizes. “At Tryon Medical Partners, we encourage conversations with their doctor, other patients and support groups to help navigate the unknown.”