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How and Why MS Affects Cognitive Function

Difficulties with short-term memory, problem solving and other mental tasks are a common symptom of multiple sclerosis. In fact, these symptoms can appear before any physical disability is noticed.

How does this occur? MS occurs when the immune system attacks the myelin sheath of nerves in the brain and spinal cord. When this happens at these sites, it interferes with proper nerve function — including both physical and mental functions.

Other factors that may contribute to problems with memory are stress, fatigue, anxiety, and lack of sleep — all common elements of living with MS.

Recognizing the Memory Symptoms of MS

The cognitive symptoms of MS can appear in the earliest stages of the disease and may be subtle at first. The symptoms may be overlooked or overshadowed by the onset of physical MS symptoms. In addition to short-term memory loss, other symptoms that can indicate MS-related mental impairment may include:

  • Difficulty with problem-solving and performing multiple tasks
  • Slowed thinking
  • Difficulty with visual representations and spatial relationships — reading a map, for example.
  • Changes in personality
  • Language problems
  • Difficulty with work performance

Diagnosis — the Earlier the Better

Many tests are available to help determine the presence and severity of cognitive symptoms related to MS. These tests can evaluate memory, attention, information-processing speed, executive function (e.g. planning and decision-making), motor skills, as well as visual/spatial and verbal function.

Diagnostic tests can provide objective information and serve as measures for disease progression. Whatever tests your neurologist recommends, it's critical to act early — before symptoms can impair your work or daily living. With early diagnosis, you and your doctor can design a treatment strategy that works best for you.
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