Memory problems may be common with multiple sclerosis, but you can improve and protect your cognitive abilities with these expert tips and strategies.
For some people with MS, recent memory is impaired, which makes trying to recall something learned recently, like the name of a new neighbor, a challenge. For others, the difficulty is with long-term or remote memory — you may find it hard to remember learned skills, such as playing a game you enjoyed years ago, or even tying shoelaces.
Almost 60 percent of people with multiple sclerosis experience some sort of memory problems, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. More rarely, in about 5 to 10 percent of people with MS, memory becomes limited to the point that it significantly interferes with daily function.
Certain strategies can help you exercise your memory and make remembering a bit easier.
Perception or Reality?
Your memory may not be as bad as you think, says Laura Lacritz, PhD, professor of psychiatry, neurology, and neurotherapeutics and associate director of neuropsychology at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “While dysfunction can be seen in MS, perceived memory difficulties are often related to reduced attention and slowed processing speed, which are among the most prevalent cognitive changes seen in MS,” she says.
With this in mind, methods to improve memory are rooted in techniques that enhance attention and the ability to process information. Lacritz points to promising studies showing that people with MS who were slower to learn new information were able to retain the material at the same rate as those without MS.
Strategies to Improve Your Memory With Multiple Sclerosis
Lacritz offers the following 12 suggestions to help with memory at home, at work, and on the go:
- Get good sleep. The brain restores itself and consolidates information during sleep.
- Reduce distractions. Especially when you need to learn something new, cut out visual and audio clutter. For example, designate periods of the day for tasks that demand concentration and ignore emails and phone calls during that time. Set a separate time for responding to messages.
- Don’t put off tasks. Schedule demanding tasks or activities earlier in the day when you have the most energy.
- Focus on one task at a time. That means no multitasking. Stick with one project until you’re finished, then move on.
- Leave yourself reminders. If you have to stop in the middle of a task, jot down a note so you know where you were when you pick it back up.
- Repeat new information to enhance learning. This may involve having information reiterated to you, then you repeating it back and making a written note of what was said. This multimodal learning (hearing, speaking, and writing) can enhance later recall.
- Give yourself enough time to process new information. Before switching to a new topic or activity, review the information, ask questions, and repeat the information back as needed. The key is to make sure you have adequately processed the information. If the information never gets in, it isn’t likely to be recalled later.
- Use written lists and reminders. The act of simply writing out a list can help you remember tasks. Make a list at the end of each day for the following day, and then review the list in the morning and prioritize what needs to get done.
- Stick to routines. Creating a routine makes tasks — such as taking medication and doing household chores — easier to remember.
- Make exercise a regular part of your routine. In particular, aerobic exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function among those with MS.
- Manage fatigue. Fatigue can be one of the most debilitating MS symptomsand can compromise your cognitive function. To lessen your fatigue, try delegating tasks to others, pacing yourself, and exercising — yes, exercise can help fatigue, too.
- Be alert for signs of depression. Depression can contribute to attention problems and fatigue, making it more difficult to learn. Depression can also exaggerate memory impairment.