Memory and Brain Function

Age puts you at risk for memory problems. There are many causes. The most common cause in the U.S. is Alzheimer’s disease, which damages brain cells. People aging with HIV may get Alzheimer’s like anyone else, but HIV itself may also damage brain cells. This explains why there are many studies assessing the cognitive status of older adults with HIV.


HIV can change brain function and thereby influence your day to day activities including work, volunteering, as well as social and family life.


HIV can in some affect memory, reading and math skills, as well as lower attention, and the problems of dealing with new information. HIV’s impact on the brain can result in increased anxiety, reduced interest in life as well as depression.

In some situations, older adults with HIV exhibit shaky hands, making it hard to hold utensils or get dressed. Also seen are poor leg movements which can lead to falls.

What you can do with your doctor


HIV meds can ease brain problems and prevent them from getting worse. If you are not already on HIV treatment, it is now recommended for almost everyone with the virus to begin treatment immediately


If you have memory problems, ask your doctor if you should see a geriatrician. If you have mood problems, ask to see a psychiatrist or therapist. If you have problems with movement, ask to see a physical or occupational therapist or a neurologist. If you have problems with work or family life, ask to see a social worker.


What you can do yourself


Take the right number of pills at the right time of day. Use an organizer pillbox, set an alarm on your phone or elsewhere, or ask someone to remind you. This is particularly important for your HIV meds. The lower your HIV viral load, the less likely you will have brain problems.


Some people try to maintain their brain skills by doing crossword puzzles or brain teasers. But according to Harvard Health, “There is some evidence that challenges like playing a musical instrument or learning another language have more benefits than repetitive exercises like crossword puzzles. Although “brain-training” programs are a multi-million-dollar industry, there is no conclusive evidence that any of them improves memory or reasoning ability. We don’t know whether playing brain games is helpful. Getting together with family and friends to play cards may be as good.”


Memory problems can cause trouble with health and finances as you get older. Plan. Think of someone you trust and assign them to make decisions about money and health. This person is commonly referred to as a “proxy”. Your proxy will be a backup if the day comes when you cannot make decisions on your own. Tell him/her in advance how you want your money and health handled. If you do not know how to plan for your future health, ask your doctor. If you do not know how to pay for your future finances, ask a lawyer.

Make a Living Will and a Healthcare Proxy and give copies to your lawyer, family members, and the person you designate to make your decisions. Keep your copy somewhere you can easily get to in case you need it in an emergency.