Mild memory and thinking problems

Mild memory and thinking problems can be part of the normal ageing process, but can also affect some people with Parkinson’s.

What are mild memory and thinking problems?

This is when you have difficulty recalling things, finding words and making decisions, but you can generally continue your day-to-day life without too much trouble.

Your doctor may use the term 'mild cognitive impairment' to describe this. Mild memory and thinking problems will not affect all people with Parkinson’s, and can occur at any stage of the condition.

If you are having these problems, you and your family and friends will probably have noticed. It’s natural to worry about this change, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your symptoms are caused by something more serious, such as dementia.

Dementia in Parkinson’s is diagnosed when thinking and memory problems are bad enough to interfere with your ability to do your daily activities (more than the usual difficulties caused by movement problems in Parkinson’s).

What are the symptoms of mild memory and thinking problems?

You may have difficulty with activities such as planning, multitasking, moving quickly from one activity to another or doing tasks in a particular order. This may mean you feel less efficient or less organised than you used to be, or you may get confused, particularly if you’re feeling stressed.

Problems with attention and concentration can make daily tasks, such as reading a newspaper article from start to finish, more difficult. You may experience slower thought processes, so it could take you longer to make decisions or to respond to questions.

If you’ve had surgery for Parkinson’s, such as deep brain stimulation, you may have some specific problems with talking, concentration and complex thinking. However, some people find that the surgery improves their memory.

What are the causes of mild memory and thinking problems?

We still don’t fully understand why mild memory and thinking problems happen in Parkinson’s. They could be caused by problems in the pathways that pass messages from one part of the brain to another.

There may also be other explanations for your symptoms. These include:

Anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression can have a big impact on your ability to think, remember and deal with information properly. They may affect your attention span and concentration.

If you are feeling down or depressed, see your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse for help and advice. It’s also important to try to find ways to relax.

Sleep problems

Difficulties in sleeping can lead to excessive daytime sleepiness. Some Parkinson’s medication can also make you feel sleepy.

If you’re feeling tired or run down, this may affect your thinking, concentration and memory. Talk to your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse about ways to deal with any sleep problems.

Diet and general health

Make sure you’re eating a healthy diet and getting all the vitamins you need, as this may help to improve your general health.

Common health problems, such as infections, particularly in older people, can cause difficulties with thinking and memory, but are easily treated. Speak to your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse for more information.

What can I do about mild memory and thinking problems?

Some Parkinson's medications, particularly levodopa, may improve memory and concentration. But, in some cases, levodopa may cause confusion.

Anticholinergic drugs and dopamine agonists may also have a negative impact on thinking clearly, particularly in older people with more serious memory and thinking problems.

It's important to tell your specialist or Parkinson's nurse about any memory and thinking problems you're having. They’ll be able to adjust your Parkinson’s medication, if necessary, and advise you about services and other health professionals, such as occupational therapists, who may be able to give advice to you or your family about how to cope.

There are currently no specific medications to
treat mild memory and thinking problems in Parkinson’s.

The medication used for Alzheimer’s has not proved helpful for people with Parkinson’s alone, but may help some who have dementia as well as Parkinson’s.

If you or your family are concerned that your symptoms are getting worse, it may be possible to get some tests done with a psychologist.

This usually involves paper-and-pencil tests of memory, attention, concentration and other aspects of thinking. The results of these tests may reveal the exact nature of your problems.

A psychologist may also be able to offer advice on ways to improve your memory. Ask your GP, specialist or Parkinson's nurse about getting referred.

What can I do to manage mild memory and thinking problems?

If you find that mild memory and thinking problems are starting to affect your daily life, there are tips and techniques you can use to help.

Visual prompts

Having calendars, clocks, noticeboards and notices around the home may help jog your memory.

You may find it helps to keep a list of things to do. You can see what you have achieved as you tick off each task.

Routine and being organised

Being as organised as possible may help you stay focused and keep stress to a minimum. Avoiding change in your daily routine, as far as you can, may also be helpful.

Remember that sometimes it might help if you slow down and tackle one thing at a time, rather than trying to multitask. Prioritise the things you have to do and the things you want to do, and choose which you can leave for later. Giving your undivided attention to whatever you are doing can help you to avoid mistakes or miscommunication. This can relieve stress and help you to feel in control.

Memory aids

  • A 'memory basket' will help you to keep your keys, wallet and glasses all in one place.
  • Medication dispensers and pill timers can be a
    useful reminder to take your medication, as it’s
    important to take it at the times advised by your
    specialist or Parkinson’s nurse. 
  • Most mobile phones have alarm settings that can be used to remind you to take your medication and attend appointments.
  • Keep a diary of your symptoms. This may help
    you explain any issues when you see your
    healthcare professionals.

Keeping it simple

If you’re having difficulty remembering or following
conversations, ask people to speak and explain
things as clearly and simply as possible. They can also
help you by providing information in several different
ways. For example, they could write messages down
for you, as well as talking to you face to face.

Maintaining independence and keeping active

It’s important to keep your mind as active as possible, through exercise, hobbies and taking part in social activities.

You could try some mental stimulation, such as doing
crosswords or sudoku. You may need some support, but try to stay as independent as possible when going about your day-to-day life.

Driving

For many people, mild memory and thinking problems will not affect driving. However, if your symptoms do affect your ability to drive safely, you will need to inform the DVLA or DVA, who will then assess you. This does not necessarily mean you will have to stop driving. Your GP or Parkinson’s nurse can advise on whether you need to contact the DVLA/DVA.

What can I do at work?

If you’re still working, you may find it useful to adapt
your working environment. Simple but effective
changes include keeping your workspace tidy,
trying to focus on one task at a time and reducing
distractions when doing complex tasks.

Occupational therapists can advise you on this.
See your GP, specialist or Parkinson’s nurse to ask
about getting referred.

You may find it useful to rely more on colleagues for
organisation and time keeping. You could also ask
them to limit instructions to one task at a time.

Some people have found cutting back on their
working hours or changing job roles has also made
life easier, but this may not be possible for everyone.

Your employer has a legal duty to support you with
your disability. In certain circumstances, they may
agree to make some reasonable adjustments to your
job to help you manage this symptom and continue
working to the best of your ability.

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Last updated May 2017. We review all our information within 3 years. If you'd like to find out more about how we put our information together, including references and the sources of evidence we use, please contact us at [email protected].