Researchers know that MS affects cognition, which is the process by which the brain stores, organizes, and recalls information. In MS, damage occurs to the myelin sheath, a protective layer that wraps around a nerve. This sheath allows electrical messages to be sent down the nerve quickly and efficiently. If this insulation is injured, electrical signals in the brain will not be sent properly. As a result, there can be problems transporting memories and thoughts to the conscious areas of the brain.
Mild problems with cognition can show up early in the course of MS and can happen in people who have few or no other physical symptoms. The good news is that cognitive problems can be improved. Experts say that different people are affected to different extents and in different ways.
Most of the time, these problems are more of a nuisance than anything else. Even people without MS forget things from time to time! However, people with MS often find that they are having difficulties with more than just their memories.
Different types of cognitive problems include the following:
- Short-term memory: Recent memories are harder to remember, while long-term memories are very clear. For example, a person with cognitive problems may not recall what they ate for lunch yesterday but may be able to remember the phone number of an old friend.
- Attention span: The amount of time a person can concentrate on one specific thing is shortened.
- Word recall: Although the word is on the tip of someone's tongue, he or she is unable to think of it.
- Information processing: Distractions are more than minor annoyances, to the point of preventing someone from doing the task at hand. For example, a person with cognitive problems may feel overwhelmed if several people are talking at the same time.
- Judgment and problem-solving: A person has difficulty making quick decisions when assessing a particular situation, thinking of an appropriate action plan, and carrying it out. For example, a person may get frustrated and give up when faced with a problem rather than trying to find a solution.
If the risk of physical and cognitive disability is weighing on your mind, talk to your doctor about it. There are many options available that can help you live better with MS.
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