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Memory problems and HIV

the hiv test

Memory problems usually affect older people, but sometimes HIV can cause them. HIV-associated dementia (or HIV encephalopathy) affects people of all ages.

Symptoms of cognitive impairment:

Usually HIV-related memory problems are at the milder end of the spectrum and many people living with HIV experience them. These tend to include symptoms such as:

  • forgetfulness
  • stress
  • anxiety

More severe memory problems - such as dementia - are relatively uncommon, but may be marked out by:

  • strange behaviour
  • a change in personality

Cognitive problems in people with HIV can be caused by:

  • HIV-associated dementia
  • an opportunistic infection such as toxoplasmosis
  • lymphoma - a type of tumour which often affects the brain
  • depression
  • side effects from the antiretroviral drugs, particularly Efavirenz
  • neurosyphilis - untreated syphilis can cause damage to the nervous system

This list was compiled according to this article from NAM.

In the past it was more common for people with HIV to develop HIV-related dementia but sophisticated antiretrovirals mean this is now rare. People who are living with HIV are more likely to develop a milder type of memory problem called ‘neurocognitive impairment’.

There are also more subtle forms of impairment which do not cause noticeable problems but can be picked up by tests.

How likely am I to develop memory problems?

The risk of developing brain impairment is higher if you have a late HIV diagnosis. It also depends upon your lowest ever (nadir) CD4 count.

Antiretroviral treatments can sometimes reverse the problem.

Can I do anything to prevent memory problems?

You can reduce your likelihood of developing brain impairment by reducing your alcohol intake and not taking recreational drugs.

Similarly, managing stress and depression is also important.

Eating a healthy diet, exercising, stopping smoking and losing weight if you are overweight are also advised by the NHS as ways the general population can avoid dementia. This is because high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels can also increase your risks of developing some types of dementia.

If you have any concerns about your memory or think you may be experiencing some brain impairment, talk to your doctor. There are tests which can determine whether you have a problem and if necessary your healthcare team will be able to recommend treatment to help.

Useful links:

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The Information Standard: Certified member

This article was last reviewed on 20/2/2015 by Anna Peters

Date due for the next review: 20/2/2018

Content Author: Kerri Virani

Current Owner: Kerri Virani

More information:

Brain impairment in people with HIV may not be as common as we thought, NAM aidsmap (2011)

Scattered pictures – brain impairment and HIV, NAM aidsmap (2009)

HIV in the brain, NAM aidsmap (2011)

Dementia, Michael Carter, May 2012, NAM aidsmap

Neurocognitive impairment, NAM aidsmap (2011)

Cognitive impairment common in people with HIV despite antiretroviral therapy, Michael Carter, September 2007, NAM aidsmap

Dementia and ART, NAM aidsmap (2011)

HIV and the brain, Liz Highleyman, The Body (2009)

What is HIV-related cognitive impairment?, Alzheimer’s Society (November 2010)

Memory problems, NAM aidsmap, March 2011

Rarer causes of dementia, Alzheimer's Society, January 2014

HIV and lymphoma, Matt Sharp, April 2011, NAM, Aidsmap

Neurological complications of HIV, John Hopkins Medicine

Can dementia be prevented?, NHS Choices, October 2010