Mind & Mood

Is an underlying condition causing your fuzzy thinking?

The top five causes you may be overlooking.

brain fog fuzzy thinking
 Image: the-lightwriter/iStock

You know the feeling: you can't find a particular word, remember someone's name, or concentrate the way you once did. Is it just aging, or is something else to blame? "It's easy to underestimate how underlying conditions affect memory and thinking, and they are often overlooked," says Dr. Shreya Raj, a neuropsychiatrist with the Center for Brain/Mind Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.

Common causes

What you should do

When trouble with concentration or memory interferes with your day, it's probably time to talk to your primary care doctor. Report any additional symptoms you may be having, such as fatigue, muscle weakness, sadness, daytime sleepiness, or anxiety. You might need some blood tests to check your thyroid hormones or B12 levels (neither test is ordered routinely), or a sleep test if you have sleep apnea symptoms.

Often, treating an underlying condition can restore your clarity of thinking. "When we treat depression or sleep apnea, for example, we see a sudden improvement in memory and focus," says Dr. Raj. "And if a medication side effect is the problem, changing the dose or type of drug may resolve the problem."

If treating an underlying condition doesn't sharpen thinking skills, your doctor may refer you to a neuropsychologist for formal tests of your thinking ability, particularly signs of dementia. Most of the time, however, people with fuzzy thinking do not have dementia.

Fuzz busters

woman-sleep-tired-bedWhen you're struggling with fuzzy thinking, lifestyle changes like these can bring more clarity.

Get more sleep. Aim for seven to eight hours of sleep per night. "Older adults to tend to sleep less, but if you're getting too little sleep, you won't think as sharply as you could," says Dr. Shreya Raj. Boost your Z's by going to sleep and waking at the same time each day, and avoiding caffeine, particularly after noon.

Exercise more. Try to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, such as brisk walking. You'll get more sleep and boost blood flow to the brain. Many studies have shown that aerobic exercise in particular improves thinking skills.

Change your diet. "Not eating healthfully makes you more sluggish, even in thinking. Studies have shown the Mediterranean diet may improve cognitive function," says Dr. Raj. The diet includes fresh vegetables and fruits; whole grains; olive oil; nuts; legumes; fish; moderate amounts of poultry, eggs, and dairy; moderate amounts of red wine; and red meat only sparingly.

Image: JackF/Thinkstock


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