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Cognitive dysfunction affects about 50-65% of people with MS. The problems can have an impact on attention, information processing, memory, planning, insight, or problem solving.

Cognitive dysfunction is one of the major reasons for unemployment in people with MS. However, there are ways you CAN improve your memory.

Loss of myelin insulating material around nerve fibers can cause difficulty with transporting memories to storage areas of the brain or retrieving them from the storage areas.

Cognitive rehabilitation includes a combination of restorative and compensatory activities.

Restorative techniques to rebuild functions include:

  • Learning and memory exercises:
    1. Combine modes of learning: You will be more likely to remember something if you “See it, Say it, Hear it, Write it, Do it.” It’s okay to give yourself extra time.
    2. Repeat & Verify: Repeating what you hear and verifying that it is correct helps with attention and memory.
    3. Spaced Rehearsal: Repeating and practicing at varied intervals of time will improve storage of information.
    4. Build Associations: Make a habit of creating memory aids. For example, to remember the name of someone you just met, make an association with a friend or family member of the same name, or a place, color, or event that sounds like the new name.
  • Compensatory techniques—to make up for functions that are weakened—include:
  1. Organize & Simplify: Use a Day Planner book, a “To Do” list, a daily log and a calendar (but just ONE, not one in every room!)
  2. Strategic reminders: Checklists, alarm watch, kitchen timer.
  3. Eliminate distractions: Turn off the TV, radio, or stereo when speaking with someone in person or on the phone. Background visual and auditory distractions can make learning or remembering more difficult.
  4. Electronic aids: Electronic organizers, PDA’s, computer programs with reminders.
  5. Take a break. If you are having difficulty concentrating, try taking a short break to refresh.
  6. Remove yourself from distractions: If you can’t eliminate the distraction (for example, people talking at a party) then ask, “Can we talk in a quieter place?”
  7. Do one thing at a time. Avoid switching from one topic or task to another. It is best to either finish or find an appropriate stopping place before switching to something else.

Cognitive problems CAN be improved. Talk to your healthcare provider to rule out medication side effects, sleeplessness, or depression. Professional help may come from occupational therapists (OTs), speech/language pathologists (SLPs) or neuropsychologists, who have training in the cognitive problems associated with MS.

Many times it requires a combination of assessment and guidance from healthcare professionals and following specific strategies every day, but you CAN remember!

Written by: Suzan Black

Contributing editors: Can Do Multiple Sclerosis

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