I bet that many, if not most, people with MS who are reading this are thinking, "This is news? I could have told anyone that my thinking (along with other things) is impaired in hot weather." This actually is a big deal, because it is the first time that the link between heat and cognitive functioning in people with MS has been formally demonstrated.
Researchers from the Kessler Foundation, with funding from the National MS Society and the National Institutes of Health, conducted a study comparing cognitive functioning in different temperature conditions in 40 people with MS and 40 people without MS. The data showed that people with MS scored 70 percent worse on tests of memory and processing speed during hot days, while people without MS scored the same during hot and cool days.
This is important information for many reasons. The study scientists pointed out that this type of seasonality could really affect clinical trial results. For instance, if people enrolled in a trial in the summer and were followed for six months, a drug to treat cognitive dysfunction (or many other MS symptoms, really) could seem like it worked really, really well, when in fact, much of this improvement could simply be due to temperatures dropping.
That is interesting from a scientific perspective, but what does this information about heat and cognition mean for people with MS? There are no treatments that are effective for cognitive dysfunction, but there are some things we might be able to do to help ourselves. Most of us have strategies we use to stay cool and avoid overheating. Here are a few additional tips you may want to consider:
Ask for accommodations at work: Clearly, this applies if you have told the people that you work for that you have MS. If so, you may want to explain to them that the hot weather makes things a little harder for you and that you want to do a good job, but need a little help. Be specific in what you want – certainly, you could ask to be moved from a situation that had you outside during hot months. You could also ask for people to communicate with you in certain ways, so that you wouldn't miss anything that might be mentioned in passing – document requests in e-mail or using a shared online calendar might help.
Fix your world: I think many of us are our own enemy when it comes to cognitive dysfunction. We try to multitask while living in a world with constant noise and clutter, which leads to stress and frustration when we can't get everything done or forget things. Try this: Clean up your house. Turn off the television. Focus on one thing at a time – when you talk on the phone, just concentrate on the conversation – don't simultaneously fix dinner, surf on the Internet and keep an eye on your toddler. You may think you have no time for only doing one thing at a time – trust me, you will get more done and it will be done better if you don't try to do it all at once.
Be patient: Treat yourself kindly. Yes, I get mad at my brain for slowing down in the summer and I have gotten frustrated that my work doesn't get done and I forget things and on top of it, I feel lousy for a good chunk of the year. Guess what? That hasn't helped me one bit. In fact, it makes everything worse when I let myself get flustered. When I feel these emotions coming on, I try to slow down my reactions to things and figure out how to make my immediate situation better. Sometimes, dropping everything and having a big cold glass of iced tea is enough to derail the negativity. Other times, it may take a little more effort, like a cool shower or a phone call to a friend.
As we head into summer, think about what you can do to make these months bearable for yourself. I'm going to make it a goal to try to find a way to enjoy myself during the upcoming hot days a little, rather than glaring out at the world from behind my curtains.