By Julie Ann Zuniga, PhD, RN (Protégé, APA Cyber Mentors Program)
Have you ever forgotten where you put your keys? Or looked around for your glasses when they were on top of your head? Everyone knows what it’s like to forget the little things. However, some people living with HIV may be particularly affected by cognitive changes, such as short term memory loss and confusion.
An estimated 20 to 30% of people living with HIV may experience some form of cognitive disorder. Most cognitive disorders are unlikely to significantly impact day-to-day functioning. The level of cognitive disability varies greatly and may be linked to severity of illness. However, when it does occur, memory loss can be understandably frustrating for people experiencing the cognitive change as well as for their caregivers and loved ones.
If you are living with HIV, here are some steps you can take to prevent or improve short-term memory loss. Even if you don’t have HIV, these tips will benefit you, too:
- Stay physically healthy:
- Decrease stress
- Get enough sleep
- Decrease alcohol intake
- Take your medications regularly.
- Keep challenging your brain:
- Learn a new skill that is difficult and you find interesting.
- Speak the second language you learned in school. Watch a telenovela in Spanish, listen to an opera in Italian, or watch a foreign film.
- Play or learn to play an instrument. Pull out that old flute, keyboard, and sheet music. It doesn’t have to sound good!
If you are already experiencing short term memory loss, use these tips to cope:
- Use visual reminders:
- Post-it notes. Many patients have found using post-it notes is helpful to remind them what they set out to do.
- Dry erase boards. Daily reminders can be written and changed on dry erase boards. These are used in hospitals to remind patients of the day and the names of the medical staff. A message of the day’s activities might be helpful.
- Use apps for memory loss:
- Task lists help you remember what task you need to do and when. The tasks can be simple, like “lock the door,” or “feed the cat.” One useful app is called “It’s Done.”
- Timers can help you remember to move on to the next task. Some don’t realize how long it takes to do a task, and these apps will remind you to move on to the next activity. Try the “30/30” app.
- Games: Some games claim to improve mental sharpness like Luminosity, Brain School, Sudoku, or KenKen.
- Recorders: There are free voice recorders you can use for verbal reminders or instructions.
This is not an exhaustive list. There may be other ways for you to cope with cognitive difficulties. You can start with these tips as the basis for trying out other ways to improve your memory or cope with memory loss. You should also consult your healthcare provider to arrange for evaluation and possible assistance.
Julie Ann Zuniga, PhD, RN is a post-doctoral fellow at Emory University, School of Nursing. She obtained her nursing degree and PhD from The University of Texas, where she trained as a nurse at the county hospital on the infectious disease unit. She is currently a protégé in APA’s Cyber Mentors program.