Cognitive problems in MS

"Cognition" refers to memory and thinking. It describes the way we:

  • focus, maintain and divide attention
  • learn and remember new things
  • think, reason and solve problems
  • plan, carry out and monitor our own activities
  • understand and use language
  • recognise objects, assemble things together and judge distances.

These skills vary naturally in different people and we all have different strengths and weaknesses. However, cognitive powers are considered to be normal if our skills allow us to cope adequately with everyday life.

How MS affects cognition

MS may affect cognition in a number of ways:

Learning and memory

Young lady deep in thought

There are different types of memory and the brain organises these in different ways.

MS most commonly affects remembering recent events and remembering to do things.

Some people with MS also say that it may take more time and effort to actively search for a memory. This is known as recall.

Fortunately there are lots of ways that you can compensate for these kinds of problems. See 'coping with cognitive problems' for more information.

Attention, concentration and mental speed

Some people find it more difficult to concentrate for long periods of time or have trouble keeping track of what they are doing if they are interrupted (they ‘lose the thread’).

It may also be more difficult to do several jobs at once or carry on a conversation while the TV or radio are on.

Problem solving

Some people with MS experience difficulties when making plans and solving problems.

They know what they want to do but find it difficult to know where to begin, or find it difficult to work out the steps involved to achieve their goals.

Problems with planning, structuring and taking an overview can make for confusion and stress, which in turn can hamper learning and memory.

Word finding

People with MS may have trouble finding the right word. (‘It’s on the tip of my tongue’ – you know the word but just can’t think of it.)

It may be difficult to take part in a discussion because it takes too long to express an opinion or find the correct word, and the discussion has already moved on.

The impact of problems with memory and thinking

It can be frightening to feel that you don't have a grip on things that used to come more easily. Sometimes people worry that they are 'losing it' or going mad, or that they are becoming stupid. 

Cognitive problems can also cause problems in relationships, with family life and work.

Various things can make memory and thinking worse: 

  • tiredness and fatigue 
  • relapses 
  • physical restrictions 
  • depression, anxiety and stress 
  • permanent brain lesions 
  • high alchohol consumption 
  • poor nutrition 
  • tranquilisers, sleeping pills and painkillers 
Page last updated: 18 Feb 2013

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