Memory and Cognition

About half of all people living with multiple sclerosis experience issues with aspects of thinking or ‘cognition’, such as memory, attention span, planning, decision making, understanding or concentration. For most, these symptoms are quite mild, while others find cognitive issues can be made worse by other MS symptoms.

There are a number of strategies you can use to minimise the effect of cognitive symptoms.

Cognitive change and MS

If you experience some form of cognitive change, you’re not alone. This change typically manifests as poor memory and trouble concentrating, and is often described by people living with multiple sclerosis as ‘fuzziness’ or ‘brain fog’. The most common cognitive problems are linked with:

  • Memory
  • Word finding
  • Concentration and attention
  • Information processing
  • Visuospatial abilities
  • Planning and problem solving

For most people living with multiple sclerosis, cognitive change is mild and can fluctuate. You may also notice that other factors related to your MS, such as fatigue, medications and stress, can worsen cognitive issues.

Cognitive symptoms appear to stay the same over several years, or only very gradually worsen, giving you time to develop strategies to compensate for any difficulties.

Managing cognitive and memory issues

Managing cognitive symptoms often involves finding strategies to minimise the effects of symptoms. Compensatory strategies may include:

  • Starting a fixed routine – keeping things in the same place, or doing things in a certain order.
  • Using verbal tricks to help you remember things such as when clocks change for daylight saving.
  • Visual and verbal associations can help – for example picturing ‘Ms Glass’ as ‘the woman with spectacles on’, or putting meaningful tags onto words or names such as ‘Jack, the man who works in the bank’.
  • Using diaries or smartphones for reminders, planning or memory prompts.
  • Prioritising tasks to allow you to focus on one thing at a time and where possible, removing distractions, for example sitting in a quieter part of the office or turning the TV down.
  • Breaking down longer tasks into smaller chunks and carrying them out over a few days.
  • If you can, avoid doing things when you’re tired or anxious so you have more chance of staying focused.

If your cognitive problems worsen due to your other multiple sclerosis symptoms, getting those symptoms treated can help. For example, if heat is an issue, using cooling therapies such as fans or air-conditioning can assist. Equally, stress, anxiety and other symptom management such as mindfulness or yoga can help.

Getting help

If you have cognition concerns talk to your MS nurse or GP, and tell your neurologist at your next visit.  It can also be helpful to talk to others with memory, learning, or new task problems (at peer or other support meetings), who have developed some useful strategies.

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