MS and Memory Issues

TIPS IF YOU’RE DEALING WITH MEMORY ISSUES

Find ways to help exercise your memory

By the spring of 2005, tingling and weakness were bothering me, and I had lost some dexterity in my hands. But it was my memory that scared me enough to seek answers. Although everyone’s experience with multiple sclerosis (MS) varies, I had been secretly struggling with cognitive issues, fuzzy thinking, trouble making decisions, multitasking, and short-term memory problems. My kids laughed when I tried to order a pizza and I couldn't remember our own address. I laughed too, but deep inside I was scared. Something had changed in my brain, and I was becoming forgetful, confused at times, and I got lost driving on what should have been familiar roads. At times I was unable to even answer simple questions. I got frustrated and angry at myself and others around me. I tried to mask and hide it all. Having recently been awarded sole custody of my kids, I feared losing my memory would certainly lead to losing my children. Be sure to talk to your doctor if you have any questions about cognitive issues or your memory.

Short-term Memory and MS

Being diagnosed with MS was actually a relief as I finally had a name for the symptoms I had been experiencing. Although cognitive issues in MS patients may actually be a common symptom, everyone’s experience with MS is different. I was one of those people whose brain went to mush at the most inopportune time. It sucked! I endured a few more years of hiding my memory deficits. My cognitive issues were causing me collateral damage in the form of anxiety and extreme exhaustion. I eventually questioned my ability to remain employed.

My neurologist and I decided to have my memory tested to get a baseline and also to see if we could quantify my weaknesses and strengths. Although my intelligence and long-term memory were in acceptable ranges, MS had clearly affected my short-term memory.

I like to think of short-term memory as a computer's Random Access Memory (RAM), the working memory as you open and run programs. Our long-term memory is more like a hard drive, permanent storage for all those programs, data, and photographs. And, our intelligence level is sort of like what operating system we are using. 

Null alt text

I learned there are some things I could do myself to offset my memory issues. This included assistive technology and working with my doctor to help with some of the symptoms I was experiencing. I started being proactive, organizing and creating a better work space environment, being diligent about taking notes, and letting people in my life know I could still handle my responsibilities. I might just need to take a bit more time, or be left alone to do them. There are also many things that affect short-term memory for everyone. Things like sleeping habits, stress, nutrition, and aging. Talk to your doctor and make sure these items are addressed first as your memory issues may not even be related to MS!

Here are some changes that definitely have made a difference in my ability to remain working. They’ve also helped reduce the stress and worry that having memory issues can create. Talk to your doctor if you have any questions.

  1. Plan your days
    Stick to the same routine as much as possible. This can help you reduce the amount of energy you use during daily tasks. Do you ever forget to get dressed before leaving for work? Do you need to leave notes to do so? Hopefully not, and it is because getting dressed has become a routine. Also, try to plan your most challenging tasks for your best time of day. This way you’ll be full of energy and avoid memory fatigue.
  2. Create an environment free from distractions
    Unnecessary noise, activity, and interruptions will distract you, and may make it hard to process information—never mind remember it. Ask your employer for a quiet space, and limit interruptions so you can do your work. They may be able to accommodate your requests.
  3. Ask clients and coworkers to email rather than call
    I can answer 20 emails in 20 minutes, whereas 20 phone calls could take all morning. Emails create a documented paper trail that can be revisited at any time. Having an email allows you time to think about your reply before sending it. And in my opinion, emails are less stressful for family and friend interactions as well.
  4. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
    A few extra minutes of rest may provide you with more energy and help you stay sharper each day.
  5. Learn your fatigue clock and rearrange your schedule around it
    I fall apart around 3 PM and become more confused and forgetful. I don't schedule tough appointments or meetings for afternoons.
  6. Do not take on multiple tasks or projects at the same time
    Try to finish one task before tackling another. Preserve your RAM memory.
  7. Stay cool
    I am greatly affected by heat, and when my office temperature reaches 70 degrees or more, I struggle with multitasking, get confused, make mistakes, and get frustrated. If heat affects you, know when to stop and seek cooler temperatures.
  8. Use a smartphone or tablet to expand your short-term memory capacity
    Use it daily so that it becomes natural and part of your routine. I keep lists and notes, and use the calendar and reminders for everything I do in my life, work, and at home. I use the voice recorder to jot down thoughts dozens of times a day and organize them later. An alarm went off this morning, reminding me I needed to write this article! Trying to remember an appointment, a client’s name, or 7 billion usernames and passwords clogs up our short-term memory and can bring on frustration and fatigue. Things you store in your phone become things you don’t need to remember. You can retrieve them in seconds when needed. Using a smartphone on a regular basis could free up your brain's RAM memory for more important things.

Not everyone will be able to take advantage of all these ideas, but hopefully you can try a few!