Memory Challenges

Age alone puts you at risk for common memory problems. There are many causes, but the most serious cause 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. Research studies are attempting to understand how HIV affects the cognitive status of older adults living with the virus.

HOW DOES HIV AFFECT THE BRAIN?

HIV can change brain function and affect your day-to-day activities, including work, volunteering, and social and family life.

BRAIN FUNCTION

In some people, HIV can affect memory, reading, and math skills. It can also lower attention and impair the ability to process new information. HIV’s impact on the brain can also increase anxiety, reduce interest in life, and cause depression.
In some situations, older adults with HIV exhibit shaky hands, making it difficult to hold utensils or get dressed. Also seen are atypical leg movements which can lead to falls.


What you can do with your doctor

START HIV TREATMENT

HIV meds can ease brain problems and prevent them from getting worse. If you are not already on HIV treatment, it is now recommended that everyone begin treatment when they are diagnosed.

GET REFERRALS

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


What you can do yourself

TAKE YOUR MEDS CORRECTLY

You should take the right number of pills at the right time of day as prescribed. You can use a pillbox organizer, set an alarm on your phone or elsewhere, or ask someone to remind you to take your meds. This is particularly important for your HIV meds. Adhering to your HIV treatment will lower your HIV viral load and reduce the risk of brain problems.

BRAIN GAMES

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.”

PLAN FOR THE FUTURE

Memory problems can cause health and financial problems as you get older. You should plan ahead. Think of someone you trust and ask them to make decisions about your 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.

You can indicate your future wishes about your health and finances through a living will and a healthcare proxy. You should provide these documents 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.