Is brainfog from age or something else?
April 26, 2008 5:47 AM   Subscribe

Is it the fog from getting older, or is it something else? As I've gone through the years (late 30s), I can clearly feel myself getting less brainy... by that, I mean that I'm not putting together things as quickly as I once did. I'm also less creative, and overall, I feel less verbose and articulate. I've had some really stressful years, both workwise and otherwise. I don't *think* I'm depressed or overly anxious (in our 30s, we all have a bit of the anxiety, right?). So, is this normal? Do others have the same "brain fog?" If you do, shout it out. If you did, and you fixed it, I'd love to hear your secrets.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (36 answers total) 47 users marked this as a favorite
I could have written this post. Every word verbatum. I'm 36 and have really noticed this in the past 3 years. I fondly remember the days of yore when I was "sharp as a tack" and my mental prowess was something to be proud of. Now, not so much. I would love to hear how others overcame this. Supplements? Magic? Fog clearing, voo-doo dance every morning? Looking forward to answers.
posted by pearlybob at 5:57 AM on April 26, 2008

Now in my 40s, I am just as sharp as I was in my 20s. But I went through a foggy period and many people I know are mired in it. Here's my theory: the brain is a "muscle." If you don't give it long, daily workouts, it gets flabby.

When you're a kid, everything is new and your brain is constantly at work just trying to figure out the world. It doesn't feel like work. It's just what happens. Then there's school. I don't think much of the American school system. I don't think it fosters intellectualism, but at the very least it does force you to memorize stuff, do math problems and read books.

Most people I know quit stretching their minds once they're out of college. They get a job which they can sort of do on autopilot. Even if their job does involve mental work, it's probably the same kind of problems over and over. There's very little stretching. It's like at the gym. Lifting weights is good, but you can't just lift 10 lbs forever. You have to keep adding weight if you want to grow.

So many people I know go to work, come home, make dinner, watch TV and then go to bed. They may read the newspaper, but they rarely read books. That was basically what I did in my late 20s -- hence the fog. It seems unfair, because we work really hard. We're really tired when we come home. But working hard is not necessarily the same as working the brain hard.

Also, we're fooled because it feels like we never had to work at it before. Why should we have to work at it now? Well, we did work at it before. We just didn't notice. We were forced to confront the world as an infant; we were forced to go to school as a kid.

So if you want to lift the fog, start working out. It will be hard at first. It will make your head hurt. That's the nature of working out. In fact, if you do it right, it will always be hard. But you'll come to enjoy the hardness.

There are so many ways you can work out your brain. Start reading DIFFICULT books. (Shakespeare is great, because it's sort of English but sort of not. Read the plays and sonnets intent on understanding everything. Study the notes. Look strange words up in the dictionary), learn computer programming, memorize poetry, do crosswords, etc.

It will be VERY frustrating at first. It was for me. I tried, got fogged up, decided it was too late for me and that I couldn't learn anything -- and then I gave up. Luckily, something in me made me repeat this pattern. After many repetitions, learning became easier and I got sharper. Again, I can't help comparing this to working out in the gym: impossible, impossible, barely possible ... I can do it!


1. Variation. My goal is to learn something new every week. Sometimes it's something small. A new math formula. A new recipe. But the key is that I've embraced constant learning as part of my life. And I make sure that I don't always study the same stuff. I work as a programmer. It does stretch my mind to learn new stuff about programming -- but not as much as when I learn new stuff about history, psychology or Sodoku. I can't stress this enough: even if your job involves mental work, don't rely on that. Chances are, it's the same sort of mental work over and over. As tough as programming can be, if that's all the mental work I did, I'd be in fog land.

2. Push your limits. Read stuff that's a little over your head. Keep pushing when you're confused. Go back and reread until you get it. If I just CAN'T understand a book, I eventually put it down and go buy another book on the same subject. Or I buy an educational video. Or I ask a friend to explain. I approach the same hard subject from many, many angles until eventually I get it. (Or at least grow by making the effort.)
posted by grumblebee at 6:13 AM on April 26, 2008 [92 favorites]

I'm 34.. and I have similar feelings. I'm sure part of it is getting older. My analytical skills dont perform as fast and I'm definitely more disorganized. I wouldnt call the feeling "foggy".. most like general slowness ("molasses" ?) I just dont bounce back as fast from exhaustion like I used to be able to.

By far the biggest thing that helps me is getting enough sleep. In a perfect world I'd prefer to get 10 or 12 hours of sleep a day (8hr solid.. and maybe a nap). (God, saying that makes me feel old :)

Other things I've noticed. Nutrition plays a big role. After many attempts I'm finally weening myself off of soft drinks, and working on removing all processed food from my diet. (my body doesnt seem to tolerate processed food as well as it used to). All I know is when I eat something healthy (like a salad and a juice smoothie).. my body feels great, and I'm able to focus much longer and on much finer details.

The other thing I've noticed is getting enough variety in my daily routine. I tire much faster if I sit and do 1 thing for 8 hours. When I'm sitting at work, I try to break tasks up in 2 hour increments as an effort to keep my brain stimulated instead of bored.
posted by jmnugent at 6:18 AM on April 26, 2008

I just turned 40 this month, and I've noticed the same thing you describe. I recently started taking a B-complex vitamin and it makes me feel better (more energetic and more alert) than I have in a long time.
posted by amyms at 6:37 AM on April 26, 2008

At 37 I usually feel a little sharper than when I was younger, but that's perhaps because I have fewer responsibilities than most people my age (no kids or mortgage), a career that constantly nudges me into learning new things & staying curious, and fewer anxieties thanks to experience.

Occasionally I'll feel like I'm getting a bit slow and absent-minded, but then I'll realise that's always happened and is just a sign of me having a Bad Day or stagnating for a while.
posted by malevolent at 6:48 AM on April 26, 2008

I'm 33, and I'm definitely less intellectual than I used to be. However, I think it's because I've gotten into lazy habits, and also because I'm responsible for more. In my 20s, I had few bills, I was living on campus, I didn't have to cook or commute or clean, and I was surrounded by people pursuing higher learning. None of that is true now. I can't even imagine how people with kids find time to read.
posted by desjardins at 6:49 AM on April 26, 2008

I can throw a little science in here. There is a lot of evidence that fluid intelligence skills peak in the early 20's and decline from there (Psych of Aging is a totally depressing field, btw). I don't know (yet) whether you should notice it by your 30's, but it's definitely going on. Fluid intelligence skills impact your ability to put new things together, do mental math, remember series of items (phone numbers, new people's names), etc.
I haven't seen any good evidence that games like Big Brain Academy really increase your fluid skills outside of those narrow games, but you can't rule it out. Exercise is definitely the key. Smart young people make for smart old people if they've maintained their cognitive skills (they've declined, but they're still on top). Crossword puzzles, doing math in your head instead of on a calculator, basically doing things the hard way from time to time and continuously learning new things in general are all key to maintaining mental prowess. I can get more technical if anyone wants references and exact studies.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:09 AM on April 26, 2008

PS- yes, stress can cause greater declines in mental acuity, though I think I've read it's reversible if you start managing the stress or get past the tough times.
posted by parkerjackson at 7:12 AM on April 26, 2008

My mom is nearly 60, and she can beat my 30 year old sister at quizzes any day. She spends a lot of time every day doing crosswords, wordsearches, logic puzzles, those ones where they give you a list of words and you have to fit them into a grid, etc.

She's actually gotten better, it seems, since she took up doing it out of boredom a few years ago.
posted by Solomon at 7:19 AM on April 26, 2008

Almost 40 here. I chalked it up to a combination of age and full-time parenting an infant-now-toddler. I find that the short, unpredictable moments I get to myself are not conducive to keeping my brain sharp. But, I do a couple of things that seem to help.
1. Read. I keep a non-fiction article that interests me folded up in my back pocket. When I do get a minute--at the playground, on the kitchen floor while my son plays with trains, in the bathroom--I read.
2. Nap. A 20 minute nap mid-day goes a loooooong way to improving that day's mental and physical ability.
3. Daydream. Or just think about non-critical stuff. It's easy to fill every free moment with chores or "things I've got to get done," but daydreaming really leaves me mentally refreshed.
5. Exercise. When my body feels well tuned, my brain follows.
6. Do something that stresses your normal habits--similar to what grumblebee describes as variation. It could be anything from planning a trip, to cooking a new recipe, to using 5 new words a day. Something that has a beginning, middle and end, and that uses both body and brain, seem to be key (for me at least), and that you don't do every day.

And now I'm going to check the B levels in my vitamin as amyms suggests.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:23 AM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I had a little of this myself a few years back, but in general now I'm sharper than I was in graduate school, depending on the time of day. (I can actually feel myself getting "foggy" in the late afternoon, near the end of my workday.)

1. I second grumblebee's recommendation of difficult books, especially older, classic books and long ones with complex, coherent structures. Basically, the sort of books that require long attention spans. (This year I've been working my way this year through the King James Bible accompanied by the Oxford Bible Commentary, e.g. Thomas Mann also scratches that particular itch.)

2. I also second a change in diet and exercise, if need be.

3. People downthread may argue against this, but my finding is that excessive use of the Internet turned my attention span to crap. In long, complex books the satisfying feeling of learning something takes work, and the payoff is commensurate with the work; the Internet tends to dribble out bits of information that don't take more than three minutes to digest at the most, though. Books can be well-prepared, satisfying meals; by comparison the Internet is a bag of potato chips. I spend a lot less time online that I used to and gave up most of my time-wasting sites (except for MeFi, which is a bag of gourmet organic potato chips), and I directly credit that with being sharper these days.

4. Finally, consider taking up the game of go. Its easy rules make for a hard game, but it really focuses the mind.
posted by Prospero at 7:32 AM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

I started getting this feeling in my early 30's. Turned out I had sleep apnea. I went back to being pretty much as smart as I used to be.
posted by agropyron at 8:02 AM on April 26, 2008

I can't even imagine how people with kids find time to read.

It's horribly unfair for me to comment, because I don't have kids. I used to work as a preschool teacher, but that's not the same thing. I do have some understanding, though, because I have three jobs: I do one from 6am to 8am, another from 9:30am to 5pm, and a third from 7pm to 11pm. And of course I have to take time to eat, etc.

As I mentioned above, I don't think on-the-job problem solving is enough. My jobs are complex (writing, programming, theatre directing), but if I left my brain in the hands of my jobs, I'd be solving the same sorts of problems all the time.

So I've just gotten into a lifestyle where free time equals time to stretch the mind: subway to work is for reading; walking down the street, from the subway to work, is for iPod time (challenging music or audio book), elevator ride to my office is for reading; um ... bathroom time is for reading.

My brain gets downtime during sleep. While I'm awake, I keep it active. I don't get overloaded, as-long-as I keep switching activities. If I've been programming for four hours, I don't take a programming book with me to lunch -- I take a history book or a novel.

I have had to get used to snatching bits and pieces when I can. That was odd and disjointed at first. But after some practice, it didn't feel odd to read two paragraphs while riding in the elevator, another two while on hold during a phone call, another two while riding back down in the elevator, etc. I found -- with some practice -- I could keep all the threads alive in my brain. And I could pretty instantly snap back into a story or article I'd put down.

Like the poster who mentioned keeping an article in her pocket, I actively work at having "brain food" at hand. There's never a time when I can't work my brain because I don't have any materials -- I always carry books and print outs (and my iPod) with me. I think about that when I get up in the morning. What brain materials am I going to pack?
posted by grumblebee at 8:16 AM on April 26, 2008

Even if sleep apnea isn't the cause, take a look at your sleep schedule. There's a tremendous difference in mental acuity when you're getting enough sleep.

I'm 43, and just getting past a tremendously stressful period. But I'm learning a new job that I love, and I'm deep into two extensive research projects, and while I don't feel quite as mentally agile as I did when I was 20, I don't think I'd have been able to do any of this back then either. Not only did I not have the knowledge base, there's no way I would have had the patience and perseverance it takes to learn something really complex and totally foreign, for fun.

What concerns me, though, is that according to the sources I've scanned, you really shouldn't be seeing a noticeable decrease in mental acuity until your sixties. You might consider seeing your doctor; decrease in mental function can be indicative of a number of things which doctors get all excited about.
posted by MrVisible at 8:24 AM on April 26, 2008

41. I have this feeling to a really distressing degree. In my twenties and early thirties I had a wonderful feeling of mental clarity and quickness, and was quite accomplished academically and professionally. Now I sit down to analyze a problem for work and often feel like crying because I just don't have the brainpower to do it anymore. I believe the fog was brought on by medical problems. I've had several surgeries, long-term severe iron deficiency, went several years getting only four hours of sleep per night, etc. Getting enough sleep makes a profound difference, and physical exercise is very helpful as well. I agree with Prospero about the internet--it just lulls me into an apathetic trance.
posted by Enroute at 8:26 AM on April 26, 2008

^ what they said
posted by tachikaze at 9:25 AM on April 26, 2008

53. I'm less sharp about certain things, but my overall interests have broadened. So while I may not have the same obsessive focus about my work, I'm smarter about more things in general.
posted by SPrintF at 9:38 AM on April 26, 2008

56 next month. No idea what you are talking about.
posted by thomas144 at 9:41 AM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder if there's a perspective issue. I remember thinking how brilliant some paper was that I wrote in college. Years later I found a box of some of my papers and, sure, they were good for a college student but from a "grown up" perspective they're weren't very good at all. Same thing with work I did my first few years as a lawyer -- good, but not as good as I thought at the time. A lot of being sharp is not just some absolute brain-smart-ness, but experience, judgment, history. The memories of "how smart I was" may be inaccurate or incomplete.

As a lawyer I consider problems and read and analyze and write almost every day, and it's a good way to stay sharp. Many lawyers work actively into their 80s. My concern is not my brain-analysis side, but that my creative-art side is nearly starved.

I'm 42.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:01 AM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

Under 30 here, but you mentioned anxiety. I definitely feel stupid and foggy when I am anxious. And then I think about all the work I need to do, and how my brain is not up to the task, and get more anxious, and the cycle deepens. When I take care of the anxiety - via exercise, change of venue, pharmaceuticals or any combination of the above - I regain the sharpness I lose when I am stressed and breathless.
posted by Mr Bunnsy at 10:15 AM on April 26, 2008

I'm 29. I may not be as intellectually spry as I was at 21, but I'm so much more knowledgeable than I was then, and I'm able to see the way things in the world connect. I have a deeper understanding of things. That's more interesting to me than sheer braininess.
posted by mpls2 at 10:36 AM on April 26, 2008

"Brain fog," is something science has to tackle. I think many prescription medicines have big effects (mostly unrecognized by the medical community) that are a detriment to our brain health. And notice I didn't say "mind" as a medical examiner can look all he wants and never find a "mind." Meanwhile, exercise and a healthy diet are good suggestions.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 10:43 AM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Bike riding, walking, hiking (for mental sharpness, yes);
Arbitrary programming challenges;
Difficult reading;
Discussion of difficult reading with whoever I can rope in;
Infrequent crossword puzzles;
Saying 'yes' to things just outside my comfort zone (and it is a tiny comfort zone).
posted by everichon at 10:46 AM on April 26, 2008

I forgot: Cooking new recipes!
posted by everichon at 10:47 AM on April 26, 2008

I'm 42, and I felt that fog in my 30's. I think that in our 30's we often try to approach mental tasks in the same way we did in our 20's - the problem is that your life is nothing like it was then. Stress, the endless details of maintaining a home and job, and just the fact that your body needs a bit more care than it did previously can all contribute to a foggy feeling. Your brain had a lot less to think about in your 20's. Once I acclimated to my new situations and learned how to take care of my body and allow my mind to work through problems in its own way, it disappeared. You say you are stressed - I would definitely try to find a way to relax - it's definitely not going to help you focus.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:54 AM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Become a parent in your mid-30's. You learn all kinds of new stuff ;)
posted by ducktape at 11:34 AM on April 26, 2008

Good suggestions above. I'll add that the level of my coffee addiction corresponds with how mentally foggy I am. At its worst, I wake up dull, get four good hours, then start to get listless and edgy. (Sugar crashes are even worse, but I don't generally eat sweets.)

The idea that being mentally pre-occupied by work or life stress could explain fogginess also rings true to me.

One thing that helps me get that sparky intellectual high going again is socializing with people who are really interested in the same topics I am. It gets the ideas flying around.
posted by salvia at 1:36 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]

Cutting down on video games helped me feel more with it. (I was actually getting stressed out playing shoot em ups, and stress is bad for mental acuity).

Here are some other things that have helped me with teh fog:

Learn to play a musical instrument.
Memorize something interesting.
Go back and take the time to re-learn math from high school and university.
Get together with someone and read/study something difficult. (e.g. Ulysses by Joyce, Godel, Escher Bach;....
posted by storybored at 1:42 PM on April 26, 2008

The fog is something I struggle with regularly. I had attributed it in part to drinking in my youth. But I think ClaudiaCenter has a very good point about perception. I must be doing okay because I'm averaging about a perfect GPA in my distance education studies. I've attributed that to the decline in standards at university. It's true though, I have a wider understanding of the world and how it works than I did the last time I attempted study, and I pay greater attention to detail, which is I think more important in terms of GPA than natural intelligence.

I do struggle with some things I'd like to be able to do (programming for example) but on the other hand, unlike my twenties, I'll actually try to do something that I might fail at, which increases my fail ratio.

I guess I'm enjoying the strengths of this age, the maturity, the tenacity, the impulse-control, the balanced hormones (for now) even though I do miss the apparent "pick any thing up instantly" cruel memory of an earlier age. I just try harder and do better now. Doesn't seem to be anything else I can do about it.
posted by b33j at 2:43 PM on April 26, 2008

40 - Feeling it, but trying to power through. (Made Dean's list last semester! Yay!)
posted by Orb2069 at 3:47 PM on April 26, 2008

37. Feel better, sharper, more adept than 15 years ago, though a crammed schedule keeps me from taking over the world. Despite doing well academically and professionally, I have to say I was in my mid/early 30s before I really felt like I had any idea what I was doing at any time.

One thing to consider might be what kinds of tasks you're doing when you feel most frustrated. There's some material in the neuroscience literature suggesting that the brain develops some capacities earlier and that they burn out or at least recede as time goes on. In particular, capacities for calculation and mathematical reasoning seem to develop very rapidly at a young age and trail off later on. (A highly unscientific point to note here is that most great mathematicians did/do their best work before the age of 30 and very rarely make significant contributions after that.) Other sorts of capacities take shape later, assuming they do at all. So maybe it's worth a little self-examination to see if you're getting frustrated doing things that you expect you can do as you once did and considering whether there are other sorts of tasks and other ways of thinking that might come more easily to you now. (No idea what those things would be for you, of course, just saying you might respond by being open to different things.)
posted by el_lupino at 4:49 PM on April 26, 2008

As I've posted elsewhere on AskMeFi (too late in the day to look up my own citations), I've got fibromyalgia and I've been dealing with brain fog since my mid-20s. L-theanine has been a job-saver for me. I take 100 mg each morning and I'm set for a day of work.
posted by bryon at 9:11 PM on April 26, 2008

41 (just ;) and still learning new things.

It can help to use memorisation software like Mnemosyne, FullRecall, or Supermemo (the bonus with Supermemo is that you get a good mental workout just trying to figure out how to use the software). At least then you have some signposts (the memorised items) to "hang" further understanding on.

+1 for exercise, and +1 for keeping off the net. The chunking of information online makes it too easy to get mentally lazy.
posted by flutable at 1:19 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've had some really stressful years, both workwise and otherwise.

This is the part that jumped out at me waving sparklers, because stress probably has a LOT to do with it.

I went through a similar "foggy patch" a couple years ago, and took a long, hard look at my lifestyle -- I was working a day job, and I also had a busy second job as a theatrical stage manager (for the uninitiated, being a stage manager is akin to being a combination requisitions officer, counselor, project manager, and air traffic controller for the production) AND a third job as a writer. The stress from being a stage manager is enormous -- but I realized that I had been going from gig to gig to gig with only a week off in between for two solid years, AND trying to do a 9-to-5 job in the meantime. I did some more math and realized that I had spent the past three years in a chronic state of sleep deprivation on top of being in a constant state of stress from TWO jobs.

I immediately resolved to enter semi-retirement with the stage managing and do only two shows per year, unless I got paid enough to take time off from the day job. It took about a year, but I almost completely recovered, and I pay a lot more attention to making sure I get "down time" now; self-care to alleviate stress makes a big difference, and prolonged stress can have a long impact. But not a permanent one, if you take steps to reduce stress.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:10 AM on May 2, 2008

Google is making me lazy. I used to not give up until I remembered something. I'd think and think, and try mental tricks of association and recall. Now if I can't remember, and can't be bothered even trying, I just Google it.
Obviously, this doesn't work with personal memories, but I find most of them are best forgotten anyway.
posted by Pennyblack at 10:55 PM on October 29, 2008

+1 for exercise - more oxygen means more brain power.
+1 for eating well - no sugars, plenty of fresh produce, quality fats
+1 for using memorization software - my favorite is the new one BetterMemo, but almost anyone will do the job

And of course, something that we do less nowadays - reading good non-fiction. Not only the language used in these books is rich, but it also develops the imagination - something that doesn't apply for the TV and YouTube.
posted by john-hammond at 10:48 AM on November 5, 2008

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