Multiple sclerosis (MS) can cause cognitive symptoms, including memory loss. MS-related memory loss tends to be fairly mild and manageable. In some cases, it can be more severe.
Read on to learn more about the link between memory loss and MS — and what you can do about it.
MS is a chronic inflammatory condition that damages the protective sheath — myelin — around nerve fibers. It can also damage the nerves themselves.
When myelin and nerves in your central nervous system are damaged, lesions develop. These lesions disrupt the movement of neural signals, which can cause physical and cognitive symptoms.
If lesions develop on parts of the brain that process memories, it can lead to memory loss. Memory loss is one of the most common cognitive changes in people with MS.
Brain lesions can also affect other cognitive functions, such as attention, concentration, and ability to process information.
Cognitive changes affect an estimated 34 to 65 percent of people with MS.
MS can affect different aspects of your physical and mental health, as well as your lifestyle habits. In turn, this may indirectly have an effect on your memory.
For example, many people with MS have difficulty sleeping. Poor sleep quality and fatigue may contribute to memory loss, as well as other cognitive issues.
MS also raises your risk of anxiety and depression. In turn, symptoms of anxiety and depression have been linked to higher rates of memory problems in people with MS. More research is needed to understand how this link really works.
Unrelated health conditions and lifestyle factors can also contribute to memory loss. For example, certain nutritional deficiencies, head injuries, or other conditions can affect your memory, too.
Many disease modifying therapies (DMTs) have been developed to slow the progression of MS.
By preventing the growth of brain lesions, DMTs may help prevent or delay memory loss. However, more research is needed to learn how they affect memory.
Other medications are used to treat symptoms of MS. Those medications are known as symptomatic drugs.
Some symptomatic drugs used for other types of memory problems might have a positive effect on memory or other cognitive functions. However, research on this topic has been mixed. There is no medication that is FDA-approved to treat memory loss in MS.
Certain medications can cause negative side effects related to memory. For example, some medications that are used to treat overactive bladder or pain may impair your memory. Medical cannabis can also contribute to memory loss.
You might be experiencing memory loss if you frequently:
- have trouble remembering recent events or conversations
- forget where you put your car keys, phone, or wallet
- forget to take your medication or complete other daily tasks
- forget where you’re going, when you’re driving or walking
- have difficulty finding the right words for everyday objects
MS is more likely to affect your short-term memory, rather than your long-term memory. Although it can get worse over time, total memory loss is rare.
In some cases, your memory loss might be subtle. One of your family members might notice it before you do.
If you’ve experienced changes in your memory, make an appointment with your doctor.
To assess your memory, they might use available screening tools. They might also refer you to a specialist for comprehensive testing.
To identify the potential causes of your memory loss, they will likely ask you questions about your lifestyle and medical history.
They might order imaging tests to check for lesions on your brain. They might order other tests to check for nutritional deficiencies or other potential causes of memory loss.
To help limit memory loss, they may recommend one or more of the following:
- memory exercises or other cognitive rehabilitation strategies
- changes to your sleep schedule, exercise routine, or other lifestyle habits
- changes to your medication or supplement regimen
- new or different treatments
You can also use a variety of memory tools and techniques to cope with memory loss in your daily life. For example, it might be helpful to:
- Use a calendar to keep track of important appointments and other commitments.
- Set smartphone alerts or put up post-it notes to remind yourself to take medications, attend medical appointments, or complete other tasks.
- Carry a notebook with you or use a smartphone app to record important thoughts that you want to remember later.
MS can potentially affect your memory in direct and indirect ways. If you’ve noticed changes in your memory, make an appointment with your doctor. They can help you identify the causes of your memory loss and develop strategies to manage it.