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When you've got multiple sclerosis, losing your keys or forgetting a name can be scary. You wonder whether the illness is clouding your thinking.

It's true that over time, about half of people with MS can have some cognitive problems. That means poor focus, slowed thinking, or a fuzzy memory.

Often these problems are mild and don't really interrupt your daily life. It's pretty rare to have severe thinking problems. They affect about 5% to 10% of people with MS.

Signs of Impaired Thinking in MS

The clues that you have fuzzy thinking due to MS are often subtle. You might not notice them until a friend, co-worker, or family member points them out. You may:

  • Struggle to find the right words to say
  • Forget things you need to do or tasks already done
  • Find it hard to plan or set priorities
  • Have trouble concentrating, especially when two things are happening at once

MS usually does not hurt your intelligence or long-term memory. It won't change your ability to read or carry on a conversation.

Tests and Diagnosis for Impaired Thinking

If you suspect impaired thinking, talk with your neurologist or family doctor. Fuzzy thinking can have many causes.

Your doctor can make sure your problems don't come from normal aging or drugs that may cause confusion, depression, anxiety, or fatigue.

Once you have any health problems fully treated, the next step is usually testing. Your doctor may refer you to a neuropsychologist, speech pathologist, or occupational therapist.

MS and Rehab for Your Brain

If test results show that MS is to blame for spotty memory or poor mental focus, you may want to try rehab to sharpen your thinking. It can include:

  • Memory exercises on a computer
  • Home or work strategies with notebooks, organizers, or filing systems to help you remember things

It’s possible, but rare, that thinking problems become so severe that someone with MS needs constant care or can't live on their own. If this becomes an issue, discuss your options with your doctor and family. A social worker or psychologist also can help explore options for care.

Can Medicine Help?

Scientists are doing studies to see whether the drugs that slow the nerve damage in MS -- called disease-modifying medicines -- can help with thinking problems, too.

Others are looking at treatments, such as Alzheimer’s medications, that may temporarily improve your memory and focus. Ask your doctor to give you updates on any promising results.