Solving My MS Puzzle: Managing Cognitive Problems
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I often talk about the emotional challenges I’ve had with MS, but I’ve only really hinted about my cognitive problems. So in this weeks post, I’m going to go into a bit more depth about my cognitive issues.
For me, MS has affected my cognitive function the most, which can be very frustrating and has toyed with my sense of self as I once prided myself in my excellent memory and organisational skills. My career hinged on these skills and when my cognitive function started to decline so did my self-confidence.
Over the years I have found tools and strategies to help me solve the puzzle of living with MS-related cognitive problems and fatigue…
What is a cognitive problem?
According to the MS International Federation: “Cognition refers to the “higher” brain functions such as memory and reasoning.” (Multiple Sclerosis International Federation, November 2016).
MS will usually affect cognitive functions such as:
- Information processing
- Abstract thought
- Visual-spatial abilities
- Executive functions
Source: (Multiple Sclerosis International Federation, November 2016)
How does MS affect my cognitive function?
For me, MS has affected my short-term memory the most. It has become so bad that when reading, I can forget the beginning of sentences. I often find myself going back and rereading things over and over. Writing is also challenging because I can lose my train of thought so easily.
This has also made remembering dates and appointments quite tricky, and if I don’t write myself a to-do list immediately after being given a directive, it just won’t happen as I will most definitely forget.
It seems my long-term memory is still solid though, much to my partner’s annoyance. I can quite easily remember a conversation that happened years ago, but I struggle to recall what was said only moments before.
As well as memory problems I find it hard to process new information, I can only concentrate in short intervals, and there has been a decline in my overall cognitive function, but memory seems to be my biggest stumbling block.
It is possible to test your cognitive skill through a neuropsychological assessment and was something I requested when I started to notice a decline in my abilities. This test was done over two days to account for my fatigue and assessed a variety of cognitive functions. This was arranged by my neurologist at my request.
As I did not have a similar test done before I noticed my decline, I did not have past results to compare to. I did get a baseline to compare future tests with though. I was also able to see where I sat in comparison to the general population.
How do I manage my cognitive problems?
I have a variety of methods I use to help me cope with my cognitive problems such as using lists to help me remember things. Assistive technology such as text to speech programs to help with information processing.
However, when it comes to trying to preserve and improve my cognitive function, I use a ‘use it or lose it’ approach. So to make sure I keep putting my cognitive function through its paces, I dedicate some time during my day for brain training.
Blogging has been an excellent way for me to give some of my executive functions a weekly work out now that I’m no longer working. I also use a lot of puzzle games to help keep me on my toes such as tabletop games which is also a great way to spend time with friends.
I also use brain training apps such as Luminosity which has games based on the kind of tests I completed during my neuropsychological assessment. This app is really handy because it tracks my progress so I can also keep check of any sudden declines in my performance.
If Luminosity isn’t your thing, I have also used Sudoku and crosswords. Crosswords are a great way for me to exercise my word finding capabilities which before I started blogging was severely affected.
Don’t overdo it!
My final strategy which admittedly I kind of break quite a lot it to not overdo it. My mind fatigues quickly and if I try to push myself too much, I pay the price. For this reason, I have to do things that require concentration in chunks with appropriate rest periods in between.
When I’m fatigued, I need to adapt my plans and sometimes even delegate things that I simply can’t do. I’ve learnt that there’s nothing wrong with delegating. It’s just effective time management, and that is really the key to managing most MS symptoms.
MS has dramatically impacted my cognitive function. In the beginning, I found this to be just as distressing as the MS diagnosis itself. I feared losing my mobility, but in actual fact, I think losing my mind is far scarier.
The brain has a remarkable ability to adapt and learn.
The good news is, thanks to with regular practice and something called neuroplasticity, things have improved! I’ve been able to gain back some of the losses…and had fun doing it!