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Memory Loss and Spondylitis

Updated on August 30, 2021
Medically reviewed by
Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A.
Article written by
BJ Mac

Living with spondylitis, a type of inflammatory arthritis, comes with a long list of symptoms. Alongside characteristic symptoms like back pain, a common complication of spondylitis and other inflammatory conditions is cognitive impairment, or “brain fog." This includes mental changes like temporary memory loss, forgetfulness, and difficulty remembering words and phrases.

Forgetting what you were about to say can be embarrassing, and not being sure if you took your medications can be scary. Luckily, there are some ways to manage memory loss and live better with spondylitis.

What Does Memory Loss With Spondylitis Feel Like?

As with any spondylitis symptom, each person experiences memory loss differently and to different degrees. Some MySpondylitisTeam members have shared that they feel as if their minds are in a confused fog, like one who wrote, “I have memory loss and fogginess.” Another member described her memory loss and brain fog as affecting mostly her short-term memory: “My brain is barely functioning. I know who I am and who my loved ones are, but my short-term memory is gone, and I can’t remember some things.”

Some members find their memory loss affects their ability to keep track of things like time. Another member experienced such severe memory loss that it greatly affected her life: “I used to be so smart and as quick as a whip. Now, I forget specific words and then entirely forget where I was going with my point. I started isolating myself because nobody understands the chronic pain and brain fog thing.”

Some members worry that memory loss may be the symptom of another condition, like Alzheimer’s disease. As one member admitted, “It’s mostly words I’m having a problem with. Hoping it’s not the big A.” Another member was relieved to read from other members that memory loss was a common symptom of spondylitis: “Wow, memory loss! I thought it was Alzheimer’s. It’s all starting to make sense.”

What Causes Memory Loss in Spondylitis?

Multiple factors in spondylitis and chronic diseases, in general, can influence a person’s cognitive functions.

Inflammation

A flare (or flare-up) of spondylitis is a period in which there’s increased disease activity, which means more inflammation in the body. A study in the journal Neuroimage points to this kind of inflammation as a cause of mental fog in people living with chronic illness. The study measured three types of attention processes of the brain:

  • Orienting — Selecting and prioritizing sensory information
  • Alerting — Reaching and maintaining an alert state
  • Executive control — Deciding what to pay attention to when there is conflicting information

The results showed that inflammation affects brain activity responsible for staying alert, in particular.

Chronic Pain

Cognitive impairments are a common symptom of fibromyalgia or chronic centralized pain. According to a study analyzed by the Spondylitis Association of America, people living with ankylosing spondylitis, psoriatic arthritis, and axial spondyloarthritis have an increased risk of developing fibromyalgia. It’s believed that constantly fighting chronic pain takes up significant brainpower that would otherwise be used for tasks such as remembering.

Poor Sleep and Fatigue

According to one study, at least 58 percent of those diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis struggle to sleep well. Good sleep is associated with memory consolidation. With poor sleep, this function may be impaired and short-term memories may be lost.

People living with spondylitis also experience fatigue, which can leave a person feeling drained of energy. Spondylitis-related fatigue can cause incoherent thoughts and responses known as cognitive fog, including trouble with memory.

Medications

Some of the medications used to manage spondylitis and treat spondylitis symptoms have side effects that may affect memory. As one member wrote, “Using 1,200 milligrams of gabapentin a day wiped out my memory big time.”

Other drugs, such as the corticosteroid prednisone, can sometimes affect memory as well.

Some cholesterol-lowering statins used to manage spondylitis may also contribute to memory problems, but this association is disputed. An article published by the Canadian Pharmacists Journal acknowledged that people have experienced memory loss after taking statins, but researchers found no direct link between the two.

Talk to your rheumatologist for their medical advice if you experience any side effects from your medication. The doctor will advise you on the best way of treating your spondylitis while minimizing side effects.

Amyloidosis

Sometimes, memory loss experienced by people living with spondylitis is caused by a secondary condition called amyloidosis. Amyloidosis is a buildup of a protein called amyloid in the organs. Amyloidosis can sometimes occur in people who have been living with spondylitis for many years. Among other symptoms such as ankle swelling, shortness of breath, and weight loss, amyloidosis can cause memory loss, especially if the brain is affected. If you’ve noticed any symptoms of amyloidosis, it is important to seek medical advice so that this complication of spondylitis can be properly diagnosed and treated.

Managing Memory Loss With Spondylitis

Managing memory loss associated with spondylitis is very important to members of MySpondylitisTeam. As one member wrote, “I hope there is a treatment for this. I feel silly sometimes not being able to think of what I’m trying to say.” The good news is, there are some techniques you can try.

Work Out Your Brain

No matter the cause of memory loss, finding ways to work out your brain may be helpful.

One member decided to play memory games to help keep themselves sharp: “My memory is diminishing and in such decline that I fear my future. I am playing memory games daily to fight it.”

Another member recommended online memory games. “Go online and search for both Yahtzee With Friends and Words With Friends 2,” they said. “Both are good games, fun, and help my memory!”

Get Better Sleep

If you’re experiencing pain at night that keeps you from sleeping, talk to your doctor, who may want to adjust or change your medication or dosage. Taking your medications at different times of the day may help ensure that your medication works all night long. Your doctor may also recommend supplementing your treatments with over-the-counter options like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs if pain is interfering with your sleep.

Keep Moving

You can help support your brain and memory with a few healthy lifestyle practices. Eating a proper diet can help improve memory, and research suggests that getting regular physical activity can, too.

Take Supplements

One MySpondylitisTeam member found great relief from using supplements. “There would be times when I would be speaking and become at a loss for the right word. I realized it came with the fatigue I often felt. After taking supplements such as omega-3 and Brahmi, I soon found they helped tremendously,” this member said.

Another member offered up their regimen: “I take vitamins B2, B5, and taurine. Cut out sweeteners. I can think more clearly now.”

Ask your doctor for medical advice before adding a new supplement or remedy to your symptom management plan.

Leave Reminders for Yourself

Writing notes to yourself and creating to-do lists can help manage memory loss. “I am forgetful. Lists work,” said one member. There is also nothing wrong with asking for help and reminders from people who care. Friends, family members, and caregivers can help you keep track of doctor’s appointments, medications, and other daily tasks.

Talk To Your Doctor

The most important step in dealing with memory loss as a symptom of spondylitis is to speak to your doctor. Discussing this symptom with your doctor can help to pinpoint the cause and minimize the effect of memory issues on your life.

Talk With Others Who Understand

Memory loss and other potential aspects of life with spondylitis can be easier to manage with help. MySpondylitisTeam is an online network of more than 69,000 members living with spondylitis who share common experiences and support each other. Members come together to ask questions, share advice, and meet others who understand.

How has your memory been affected by spondylitis? Comment below or start your own conversation by posting on MySpondylitisTeam.

Ariel D. Teitel, M.D., M.B.A. is the clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU Langone Medical Center in New York. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about him here.
BJ Mac is a freelance writer who was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis in 2013 and has experience writing about various chronic health conditions. Learn more about her here.

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