Maintaining mental health

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10 Apr 2010

HIV brings changes to our lives and it challenges us, but it’s a virus; it is not who we are. There are many things you can do to help manage these challenges. Talking to a counsellor can help or there are organisations that offer courses to help you develop coping skills, including on-line courses.

Depression and anxiety are experienced more commonly by people with HIV, and often symptoms are not obvious. Each time you see your doctor, try talking about how you are feeling. Your doctor can discuss the available support services and treatment options with you if required.

Your local AIDS council or PLHIV organisation can also assist you to find the best support service for your situation.

A good social support network can also be helpful.

Dementia and cognitive problems

HIV crosses the blood brain barrier and infects cells of the brain, usually shortly after infection. As a result long term HIV infection may cause cognitive changes and HIV associated dementia (HAD). Prior to the advent of HAART, HAD was very common, but in countries with access to treatments it is now extremely rare unless HIV is diagnosed very late.

Some HIV drugs are more effective at crossing the blood brain barrier than others so it is important to be monitored for any early signs of dementia.

There is a milder cognitive disorder that some people with HIV get that is not necessarily a sign of early dementia.

Dementia and cognitive issues are associated with ageing independently of HIV.

What can you do?

Start HIV treatment before problems arise

If you start treatment soon enough, then HIV-associated dementia is now extremely rare.

Monitor for early signs of dementia

Early manifestations of dementia may include: decreased attention or concentration; reduced speed of information processing; slowing of psychomotor responses; some altered higher brain functions that can be tested for.

You will notice things like impaired memory, thinking or judgment, personality changes that interfere with relationships and decreased ability in some social or occupational functions. It is important to realise that these changes may not be a sign of progressive dementia and that if HIV is the cause then swapping treatments may slow down any progress to more advanced dementia.

Ask your doctor about getting a baseline neurological test done

If you are concerned about changes to your cognitive abilities, then getting your current level of cognitive function tested can be a useful tool to assess for any change over the coming years.