MS can cause problems with thinking or remembering things. These are known as ‘cognitive issues’. About 50% of people living with MS have difficulty with thinking, learning or memory at some point.
It’s often hard to know if these ‘invisible’ symptoms are related to MS or just part of normal life. For example, you may just put these thinking problems down to stress at work or being tired. Cognitive issues can have quite an impact on your daily life and work, but can be difficult to explain to friends, family and employers. That’s because they’re not as easy to see or describe as the more physical symptoms of MS, like coordination and balance problems.
Cognitive issues are the invisible MS symptoms that make you doubt whether it’s related to your MS or not.
People who know me well see the signs of my fatigue and the cognitive symptoms that set in towards the end of the day. I start having trouble finding the right words and it is an effort to express myself.
When it comes to cognitive issues, I never know if this is my MS or if it’s me. For example, if I’ve had a long day at work and I’m tired, I’ll have problems concentrating or difficulty finding or spelling the right word, but this would be the same for anyone—with or without MS. I think it’s important to be aware if these sorts of things are happening more often, and if they are, mention them at your next clinic visit.
Although you might put your cognitive issues down to being tired or stressed, they could be a sign of nerve damage and disease progression. If you’re having cognitive issues, like trouble concentrating or thinking clearly, tell your healthcare team, even if you’re not sure if they’re caused by your MS. Remember, if you notice and report these things early, there are ways to manage your MS.
Read on to find out how and why MS can affect your thinking and how you can manage it.
The technical term for the processes involved with thinking is called ‘cognition’. These processes include:
MS can affect these cognitive processes and cause problems with your thinking. Around half of people living with MS may experience some form of cognitive problem. For example, you might notice that you:
I often find it difficult to keep my concentration. When reading a book, my mind starts wandering and I often have to read the same page again and again!
For my job as an actor I have to learn lines. I initially knew something was wrong because I started having problems learning my lines—even the tricks I learnt at drama school didn’t help. These were MS symptoms and I didn’t even realize.
Cognitive issues may be due to damage in the brain caused by MS. However, there are many other factors that can affect your thinking and cognitive issues are not all caused by MS.
Side effects from certain medications
Cognitive issues in people living with MS are usually due to the damage caused by MS directly, but can also be related to the side effects of some medications. Medications that can affect memory and thinking include:
If you’re on any of these types of medications and you’re experiencing cognitive issues, speak to your healthcare team. They can help you work out if your issues are caused by your medications or your MS and help you come up with the best plan to manage them.
Other MS symptoms
It’s possible that some of your other MS symptoms may add to your cognitive issues—for example, fatigue and not getting enough sleep can make it harder to stay alert. Depression and anxiety can also make it harder to think clearly.
Other factors that are not directly related to your MS can cause cognitive issues too. Not getting enough sleep, feeling stressed, having an infection, drinking too much alcohol, or even just being too hot, can all affect your memory and ability to think.
You might be tempted to put your cognitive issues down to something else or try to deal with them on your own.
But if you can, look to trusted family and friends as a source of support − they won’t know what you are experiencing unless you tell them.
If you are having any cognitive issues, talking to people can also help you understand your symptoms better. They can give you an outside opinion on whether they have also noticed a change in you, which can be helpful to confirm the things you’re feeling.
If it’s affecting your work, you may also want to tell trusted colleagues or an understanding boss to help them understand what is going on. Depending on the kind of work you do and who you work for, you might want to weigh up the potential benefits of telling them, or whether it’s best to keep your diagnosis private. See our page on work for more information and advice.
Lately, I’ve made a few mistakes at work because of problems concentrating, but I don’t want to tell my colleagues it’s related to my MS. But if these problems continue, I will definitely have to tell them and explain it to them to help them understand.
Cognitive rehabilitation and exercise
Cognitive issues can be treated with specific brain training exercises, known as cognitive rehabilitation. This may include a combination of two types of activities:
Although cognitive rehabilitation is currently the most effective way to help combat cognitive issues, there is also some evidence that exercise can help too. Getting an exercise plan in place is a good idea, as it can help with a wide range of MS symptoms. Read our exercise page for further details.
If you try to fight it, it’s almost as if it gets harder. The moment I accepted that my memory problems were due to my MS was the moment I found my memory got better.
Tips to help stay organized and on top of your cognitive issues
Outside of cognitive rehabilitation and exercise, there are a few things you can try to help deal with your cognitive issues, and to help you stay organized and on top of things in your daily life:
Someone told me to try activities on my phone (e.g., brain teasers) to help with cognitive issues. I have used these myself and have played games that are ridiculously addictive! I like them because you have to think about what to do next and it keeps your mind focused on that.
I try to write things down and make checklists so that I don’t forget details on particularly foggy days. I have tried to normalize double checking. If I can’t remember if I have locked the door or turned off the oven, I double check to be safe, and that’s ok! I set alarms for medications and use a pill organizer so I can keep track of my meds and make sure I’m taking them at the right time.
I’d say technology can definitely help! Between appointments and medications, it can be overwhelming to remember everything. Add in memory loss or issues concentrating, and it may seem impossible. Using apps or reminders on your phone can help keep you organized and on top of things.