What is Brain Fog Trying To Tell You?

Read Time: 5:00
Published: Aug 3rd, 2015
What is Brain Fog Trying To Tell You?
Article Updated:October 26th, 2019

By Sarah Klein in Prevention

It starts with something you can brush off: the standard where in this enormous mall parking lot did I leave the car? Happens to everyone, no big deal, a brain fart. Until you realize it wasn't just today at the mall; you've somehow spent most of your week feeling as if you've made major decisions behind a smokescreen. As if those brain farts were fogging up the place.

"Brain fog is an inability to really punch through."

"It's a vague sense of what you're trying to retrieve, but you can't focus in on it," she says, "and the effort to harness the thought can be as draining as physical activity."

 Mady Hornig, MD, associate professor of epidemiology at the Columbia University Medical Center

Remember how impossibly exhausting it was to run your board meeting the last time you came to work sick (please, please, stop doing that, by the way)? Brain fog is a lot like that, except it persists. A fog can linger for several days, sometimes even weeks.

Brain Fog vs Dementia

Its impermanence is the big difference between what we know as brain fog and actual dementia, says rheumatologist Robert Lahita, MD, Ph.D., chairman of medicine at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center and professor of medicine at Rutgers in New Jersey. Brain fog might cause you to forget where you parked that car at the mall, but dementia might make it impossible to get there in the first place, he says.

There's not a lot of scientific evidence to explain what's going on when the clouds roll in. Researchers haven't really found a way to measure or test for brain fog like they have dementia. "Everybody knows what it is,"  "but at the same time, it is so unknown."

Robert Lahita, MD, Ph.D., rheumatologist

Getting Enough Sleep?

If you're sure you've been getting enough sleep—because who isn't in a daze when sleep-deprived; in fact, check out these 10 things happening to your body when you don't get enough sleep—it's probably a good idea to bring up brain fog with your doctor if you start to feel seriously off.

"If you're not feeling like your normal self, that might suggest something's going on."

 Kelly Ryan, Ph.D., neuropsychologist, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan

Especially if it lasts for a week or two, Lahita says. At the very least, your doctor can perform tests to reassure you it's not dementia.

People facing a wide variety of diagnoses describe foggy days, as do people who don't seem to have anything physically wrong. Here are a few things brain fog might be telling you:

Changing Hormones

And here you thought only your hormones would change! A series of hazy days in the mental forecast could be a sign menopause is near. Midlife brain fog is very real: A University of Rochester and University of Illinois study showed women between the ages of 40 and 60 have trouble staying focused on tricky tasks and stumble with something called working memory, which helps you do things like adding up a bunch of numbers in your head.

Hormones shape the brain, Lahita says, so it would make sense for vacillating estrogen levels to cause shifts in cognition, too. Which likely sounds familiar to anyone who not-so-fondly recalls "pregnancy brain." In one small study, researchers found having a bun in the oven makes what's called spatial memory, which helps you do things like remembering where your glasses are (hint: probably on your head), a challenge, possibly because of the impact high levels of hormones have on neurons in the memory-focused part of the brain called the hippocampus.

Ryan's recent research found that the fuzzy thinking cited by people with depression or bipolar disorder actually shows up on brain scans. In the study, women with these conditions struggled more with a cognitive test than healthy women. The same area of the brain was active in all the women (since it's known to pitch in when you're taking a test), but women with depression or bipolar disorder had unusual amounts of activity (either too much or too little) going on in that region, she says. Not only does that mean bipolar disorder and depression may not be as different as science once thought, she says, but also 

"at a neurobiological level, it could be that the brain works differently" in mental health patients.

Kelly Ryan

With the assistance of certain meds or therapies, you might be able to address some of this difficulty focusing or concentrating, Ryan says, although some people with depression or bipolar do still report they don't feel as sharp even when their mood feels stable, she says.

Freaking out about your brain fog won't do you any good, considering worrying could be what got you here in the first place. When life gives you lemons—you're going through a divorce, you've lost a dear friend—it will probably also give you confusion and forgetfulness, simply because of the mental energy it takes to crank out the lemonade.

"Stress impairs performance, physically and mentally."

Robert Lahita 

At the very least, know what really sets you off, whether it's the overflowing laundry hamper or your oversharing co-worker, because zeroing in on what triggers stress could help you curb the fog, Hornig says.

"Identify potential patterns, then eliminate certain factors causing issues to feel more stressful."

Mady Hornig 

If that sounds daunting itself, talking it through with a therapist might help you put the pieces together.

From the autoimmune to the neurological, brain fog crops up in people with a wide range of diseases, like fibromyalgia, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and more. If you've been battling prolonged brain fog and it's not related to your sleep schedule or your last feeding frenzy, talk to your doctor about what other symptoms you might have overlooked, like joint or muscle pain, numbness or tingling, headaches, and loss of coordination.

About the Author

An LTC News author focusing on long-term care and aging.

Editor's Note

As we get older our bodies and minds change. Life changes. Preparing for the financial costs and burdens that come with aging is a key part of a retirement plan. Think about the impact your longevity will have on your family. Could they quit their jobs and become caregivers? How would this impact their careers, families, and lifestyle?

Could Your Spouse or Adult Children Be Your Caregiver?

Would your spouse be a good choice for a caregiver? Maybe an option if their younger, although if they are still of working age that won't be an option. If they are older the physical ability to provide help with everyday living activities would be limited at best.

Can You Depend on Your Savings and Income to Pay for Long-Term Care?

You could pay for care from your savings and income ... but ... how would that impact the lifestyle of your spouse? How long would your savings last? How would that impact your legacy for your children and grandchildren?

This is why affordable Long-Term Care Insurance is an essential part of retirement planning. Even a small policy will provide your choice of quality care in the setting you desire. It will protect savings and income. It will make getting older easier on those you love.

Several Options to Choose From for Long-Term Care Planning

There are several types of plans available. One of them will work with your needs, concerns, health and budget. The only "good plan" is the one you have at the time you need it. This means ideally you should act before you retire.

Seek Help from a Qualified Specialist

No matter which type of plan you purchase, Long-Term Care Insurance is easy, affordable and rate stable income and asset protection. These policies are custom designed. Be careful, however, since premiums can vary over 100% between companies for the exact same coverage. This is why you should seek the help of a qualified Long-Term Care Insurance specialist. Find a specialist by clicking here.

Items to Discuss with a Long-Term Care Specialist:

  • Partnership – Most states offer special policies that provide dollar-for-dollar asset protection. The Long-Term Care Insurance Partnership Program might be one of the best-kept secrets in retirement planning. Make sure the specialist explains this program and how it might help you.
  • Tax incentives – There are federal tax incentives available for some people. If you own your own business be sure to ask.
  • Health Savings Accounts – If you have an HSA you can use the pre-tax money in your account to pay for the premium.
  • Asset-Based or Hybrid policies – These are life insurance or annuities with a rider for long-term care. Careful, only a handful are actually a long-term care benefit. However, one of these policies can provide you with the flexibility of both a long-term care benefit or a death benefit. They are expensive but can be paid with a single premium.
  • Health and Family History - Make sure the specialist asks you detailed questions about your health, family history, and retirement plans. Underwritingcriteria varies with each insurance company. If they are not asking you detailed questions then find another specialist.

Research Tools for Planning

Take a moment and find the current and future costs of long-term care in the area you live in. This will help you decide the amount of coverage is appropriate for you in your situation. For example, if you have a defined pension when you retire the amount of benefits you would need for long-term care would be less than an individual who will fund their future retirement with earnings off investments. In that case, protecting the principal is essential since that will produce your future income.

Find your state and use the LTC NEWS cost of care calculator by clicking here.

It is always best to start planning before you retire. Once you have your plan in place you will enjoy peace-of-mind and your family will thank you decades from now.

LTC News Contributor James Kelly
James Kelly

Contributor Since
August 21st, 2017

LTC News author focusing on long-term care and aging.

About the Author

LTC News author focusing on long-term care and aging.

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