It describes a common lasting effect associated with COVID-19, but it's more complex than just that.
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Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the term "brain fog" is one you might have thrown around when you didn't get enough sleep the night before, hadn't perked up after a second cup of coffee yet, found it hard to focus on one task at a time, or couldn't remember where you put down your phone. "Brain fog has been used to refer to difficulty concentrating or with recall, but it's a jargon term that can be interpreted in a variety of ways," says Dr. Jennifer Frontera, a neurologist with NYU Langone Health. Ahead, how to understand this phenomenon, both within and outside the context of COVID-19.

Brain Fog and COVID-19

While the definition of brain fog is still relatively vague, says Dr. Frontera, the term is becoming more common, especially as it describes some of the lasting effects of COVID-19. "Brain fog is a colloquial term used in the context of post-COVID symptoms to describe absent-mindedness, forgetfulness, difficult concentrating, or general slowness in completing cognitive tasks that were once straightforward," notes Dr. Frontera. "People with brain fog describe difficulty in performing tasks that were once routine, so difficulties may arise with work, household responsibilities, or even leisure activities."

On cognitive screening tests performed at six and 12 months post-COVID hospitalization, roughly 50 percent of patients test "abnormally," explains Dr. Frontera. "Medically, we might use the term cognitive deficits, which could include domains of cognition such as issues with memory, attention, concentration, executive function, language, or orientation." (Dr. Frontera also notes a more optimistic point: Though many scores at the one-year mark still fall below the range of normal cognition, many patients do show "significant improvement" between their six- and 12-month tests.)

Doctors are still working to figure out the causes of—and best treatments for—COVID-related brain fog; potential culprits include brain injuries from lowered oxygen; chronically low oxygen resulting from lung injuries; and autoimmune disease triggered by the virus. Anxiety and depression resulting from the pandemic itself may also play a role: "The impact of the pandemic on mental health has been profound, and depression can certainly cause difficulty concentrating and cognitive issues," says Dr. Frontera.

Brain Fog Without COVID-19

If you're experiencing brain fog without a prior COVID hospitalization, consider improving your overall health to boost your brain's functioning: Make sure your diet incorporates whole grains, fresh fruit, lean protein, fish, and leafy greens; improve your sleep habits by keeping a consistent bedtime and avoiding screens before you nod off; and exercise regularly. Intellectual stimulation—crossword puzzles, logic games—and social activities have also been shown to play a role in long-term brain health. For an immediate boost on days when you feel sluggish, try an outdoor walk, two glasses of water (before you turn to caffeine), or a snack that combines a small amount of natural sugar with a serving of protein, like fresh fruit and plain yogurt or unsweetened applesauce and a handful of nuts.

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