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Memory and Thinking Problems

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board

Multiple sclerosis (MS) can cause many symptoms. People with MS often have trouble with thinking, memory, and planning. These are called cognitive problems.1

Cognitive problems can make it hard to do everyday tasks like paying bills or driving a car. Some people with MS also may have trouble understanding what others are saying or remembering important information. If you are having trouble with your thinking skills, you are not alone.1

What is cognition?

Cognition is the process of thinking and understanding. It is necessary for survival and success in our lives. We use our cognitive abilities every day to learn new things or to make important decisions. Cognition refers to the many things your brain does, including:1

  • Focusing and paying attention
  • Learning and remembering information
  • Understanding language
  • Planning and prioritizing
  • Organizing information
  • Solving problems
  • Making decisions
  • Accurately perceiving your surroundings
  • Doing math

What causes cognitive problems in people with MS?

Experts think that damage to nerve cells and inflammation in the brain are the main causes of cognitive problems in people with MS. Also, some medications may cause or worsen memory and thinking problems.2

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Problems with memory, thinking, and concentration are not directly tied to other symptoms of MS. This means you can have significant memory problems and very few other MS symptoms. Someone else may be physically disabled from MS and have no noticeable thinking or memory problems.1

Symptoms of cognitive problems

It is important to recognize and treat cognitive changes as soon as possible. These problems can have a big impact on your quality of life. You might be the first one to know if you are not thinking as clearly as you used to. But family and friends might also notice if changes are happening.1

You might have problems:1

  • Remembering how to perform daily tasks
  • Remembering facts
  • Finding the right words
  • Making decisions
  • Keeping up with conversations
  • Processing information quickly
  • Performing your job duties
  • Doing more than one thing at the same time

Treatment for cognitive problems

If your cognition is affected by your MS, your doctor might suggest a cognitive rehabilitation plan. This treatment refers to therapies that help people regain lost mental skills.1

Cognitive rehabilitation therapies typically involve sessions with a trained therapist. The therapist will work with you to identify which skills have been most affected by your MS. They will then design activities and exercises to improve those skills.1

Restorative therapies include learning and memory activities. These might be actions like:1

  • Using memory aids
  • Repeating information
  • Practicing information over time

Compensatory activities help make up for what is not working. Some examples include:1

  • Keeping a written record of things to do each day
  • Simplifying tasks as much as possible
  • Breaking down tasks into smaller parts
  • Planning ahead as much as possible
  • Using aids like calendars, labels, and timers
  • Putting things in places where they will be easy to find
  • Taking breaks often to rest and relax

Tips for jogging your memory

There are things you can do to help keep your mind sharp. Try one or more of these ideas:1,3

  • Get plenty of sleep – Sleep helps our brain rest and recharge, so it is important to get enough of it every night.
  • Eat healthy – Healthy foods help keep our mind and body strong, which in turn can help improve our memory.
  • Be active – Regular exercise has been shown to boost brain power, so make sure to get moving every day if you can. Exercise can be challenging for some people with MS. Talk to your doctor about which activities might be best.
  • Challenge yourself – Learning new things and challenging your mind with puzzles and games can help keep your memory sharp. Pick up a new hobby or start working on that jigsaw puzzle.
  • Use a planner – Keeping a daily planner can help you stay organized and on track with daily tasks.
  • Connect with others – Spending time with family and friends can help reduce stress and promote emotional well-being. Social connection is important for a healthy mind.

With careful planning and care, thinking problems can be less of a challenge. While memory problems can create hurdles, partnering with your doctor can ensure that you get the right care to live your best life.