The solution to occasional memory lapses, mental fatigue, and difficulty concentrating could be as simple as trying these lifestyle tweaks.
“Brain fog” may not be an official medical diagnosis, but it’s well known to many older adults.
Much like literal fog, brain fog is hard to navigate through. Its symptoms include forgetfulness, lack of concentration, and feeling mentally tired.
It might be reassuring to hear that brain fog is different from the serious cognitive problems associated with dementia, says Santosh Kesari, M.D., Ph.D., neurologist, neuroscientist, and director of neuro-oncology at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California.
How Brain Fog Differs from Dementia
Diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s affect more than memory, according to researchers at Oregon Health & Science University.
Those conditions change your ability to function in everyday life: You might have memory complaints, but you would also likely feel challenged with household tasks and finances. You could also have significant personality changes like rapid mood shifts, irritability, anxiety, or depression.
Brain fog, on the other hand, is typically temporary, explains Liron Sinvani, M.D., geriatric hospitalist at the Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research in New York.
The Risk of Brain Fog Increases With Age
The experts interviewed stress that anyone can experience brain fog. A night of bad sleep, stress, and feeling anxious can all cause the cloudy thinking that defines brain fog.
However, bouts of brain fog tend to become more frequent as you get older.
Those little memory lapses or periods when it's hard to focus can also be brought on by hormone changes. Thyroid problems, for example, or, in women, the shifting hormone levels associated with approaching menopause.
While it will be helpful to consult with your doctor if you think your brain fog might be coinciding with hormonal changes, you can adjust many other brain fog–triggering lifestyle habits on your own.
Here’s what to do to clear things up if you’re getting fogged in.
Brain Fog Fix #1: Work on Your Sleep Habits
Without a doubt, poor sleep quality is the number one factor for brain fog, Dr. Kesari says. Even if you log the recommended seven to eight hours in bed, frequent sleep disruption may keep you from getting the type of deeper sleep that allows your brain to perform many normal “maintenance” tasks that help you be at your mental best.
Studies suggest that when this repair work can’t get done, the result can be:
- Memory issues
- Lack of attention
- Poor decision making
- Difficulty learning
- Less ability to multitask
The longer your sleep problems persist, the worse it can get, Dr. Kesari adds. That's because you'll likely get both fatigued and frustrated by these effects.
“Quality sleep is such a huge benefit for your brain health that it’s one of the first aspects you should address if you’re having problems,” Dr. Kesari says.
There are many strategies that can help, including:
- Daily yoga and/or tai chi to release tension, calm your mind, and prepare your body for rest.
- Avoid sugary treats too close to bedtime, since they cause blood sugar spikes that can trigger a release of the stress hormone cortisol. (Find 4 more problematic bedtime foods here.)
- Commit to a regular sleep-wake schedule that ensures the sleep you’re getting is restorative for body and mind. Learn how to create an effective sleep routine here.
Press play to try a soothing pre-bedtime yoga sequence:
For more ideas, read “5 Ways to Fall and Stay Asleep—Starting Tonight!” here. You can also follow the simple-to-use strategies of our 7-Day Sleep Challenge here!
Brain Fog Fix #2: Seize Every Opportunity to Move More
Lack of physical activity can cause a cascade of health issues, from cardiovascular risks to emotional health struggles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Add brain fog to the list, Dr. Kesari says.
“Aerobic exercise helps improve blood flow and function throughout the body, and that includes the brain,” he notes.
The connection between brain health and exercise is so strong that studies suggest too much sedentary time can raise risk of cognitive impairment, including dementia.
“Exercise can be a great way to lower that risk, especially if you get activity throughout the day, every day,” Dr. Kesari says.
How much should you get for a brain boost? Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderately intense exercise each week, per the guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“Ideally, space out your workouts, so you get some form of activity each day,” he adds.
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The American Heart Association notes that even light-intensity activity can help break up blocks of sitting. For example, consider getting up to stretch and walk around for five minutes if you've been sitting for an hour. Or if you're putting away laundry, do it in small batches so you're making more trips from the dryer to the dresser.
Brain Fog Fix #3: Take Steps to Reduce Your Stress
Stress is an everyday part of life, and some degree of anxiety is normal, Dr. Kesari says. However, when stress and anxiety are ongoing rather than occasional, that can lead to mental exhaustion.
Anxiety, in particular, takes up mental energy and makes it difficult to concentrate, especially if you’re experiencing repetitive thoughts.
In a study on anxiety published in the journal Psychophysiology, researchers asked participants to complete memory tasks while undergoing random, mild electric shocks. The anticipation and experience of those shocks caused anxiety, making it difficult to complete even easy memory tasks.
Finding ways to de-stress is essential for brain health, Dr. Kesari notes. Sleep and exercise play a big role for that, and other tactics include deep-breathing exercises, making sure to connect with other people, and getting outside into nature.
Brain Fog Fix #4: Check Your Medications
"There are many medications that may come with brain fog as a side effect," Dr. Kesari notes. "That doesn't mean you have to stop treating your condition if you want to lift that fog. Instead, this is a good conversation to have with your doctor."
Some of the most common culprits are:
- Pain medicine
- Sleep aids
Sometimes, brain fog can be caused by the way these drugs might interact with each other.
It’s often possible to switch to another medication that will be just as effective for your condition, without the brain fog as a result. A good first step is to get a medication review by your doctor or pharmacist.
What's key no matter what you suspect is causing your cloudy thinking is to be aware of when, how often, and for how long you feel foggy. That's particularly true if lifestyle changes like getting more physical activity and logging more sleep don't seem to be helping, according to Dr. Sinvani.
“In cases where episodes of brain fog are occurring more frequently or are longer in duration, it’s important to discuss these symptoms with a primary care provider,” Dr. Sinvani says.
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