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Clearing away brain fog

Here are 6 steps that can restore your mental clarity

Last reviewed: March 2008
It can feel like a mist shrouding your consciousness, leaving you not quite all there. People who complain of "brain fog" have frequent bouts of feeling scattered, forgetful, unfocused, and confused when faced with simple decisions. Productivity dips, often followed by declines in self-esteem and mood. Many chalk it up to getting older, or worry that it signals the onset of dementia.

But research shows that neither aging nor senility is typically to blame for clouded thinking. One recent study of 100 older adults, for example, found that forgetfulness, attention lapses, and other complaints about mental sharpness were more closely related to mood and general mental health than to cognitive status, age, or risk of Alzheimer's disease.

So if it's not age or impending dementia, what is turning on the fog machine? It could stem from an underlying medical condition or a drug's side effects, but "most often it's a disturbance in sleep or mood, or simply the harried, stressful nature of modern life," says Jeanne Leventhal Alexander, M.D., director of the Psychiatry Women's Health Program at Kaiser Permanente in Northern California. The good news is that those problems can usually be corrected or at least improved, she adds.

If you've been feeling off your game, here are six steps you can take to restore mental clarity.

Drugs that can cloud thinking
The list below contains common drugs that can cause confusion, especially in people who are older, weigh less than average, or have kidney or liver problems. Many of the drugs are available under different brand names or as generics.
Antiarrhythmics: Digoxin (Lanoxin), disopyramide (Norpace) Incontinence medications: Oxybutynin (Ditropan), solifenacin (VESIcare), tolterodine (Detrol)
Antibiotics and antivirals: Acyclovir (Zovirax), ciprofloxacin (Cipro), ganciclovir (Cytovene), metronidazole (Flagyl) Migraine medications: Naratriptan (Amerge), rizatriptan (Maxalt)
Antihistamines: Chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy) Muscle relaxants: Cyclobenzaprine (Flexeril), orphenadrine (Antiflex)
Antihypertensives: Clonidine (Catapres) and beta blockers, such as atenolol (Tenormin), metoprolol (Lopressor), and propranolol (Inderal) Painkillers: Codeine (generic); meperidine (Demerol), pentazocine (Talwin), propoxyphene (Darvon)
Corticosteroids: Methylprednisolone (Medrol, Meprolone), prednisone (Deltasone, Orasone) Parkinson’s medications: Amantadine (Symmetrel), levodopa (Sinemet), selegiline (Eldepryl)
Cough and congestion medications: Dextromethorphan (Robitussin Cough Gels), pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) Sleep medications: Eszopiclone (Lunesta), zaleplon (Sonata), zolpidem (Ambien CR)
Gastrointestinal medications: Cimetidine (Tagamet), diphenoxylate (combined with atropine in Lofene, Lomotil), dicyclomine (Bentyl), glycopyrrolate (Robinul), hyoscyamine (Anaspaz, Cystospaz), scopolamine (Scopace) Tricyclic antidepressants: Amitriptyline  (Elavil), imipramine (Tofranil), nortriptyline (Pamelor)

This article first appeared in the March 2008 issue of Consumer Reports on Health.
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