Brain Fog? Cognitive Impairment? Which Sounds More Serious?

As a chronic illness patient, I am over the term brain fog. Let’s be honest here, it is cognitive impairment. Two years ago when I wrote “Yes, Brain Fog IS a Thing“, I was more concerned with ways to deal with it on a day-to-day basis than investigating the neurological, physiological or immunological causes or possible relief.

Cognitive impairment is a symptom experienced by MANY people with chronic conditions, irrespective of age, yet the term is more commonly associated with older people. Google cognitive impairment and nearly every result will couple cognitive impairment with “the elderly” or “in aged care” and similar phrases.

All is not lost, however – there IS recognition! And hope!

Cognitive disturbances, mood disorders and fatigue are common in SLE patients with substantial adverse effects on function and quality of life. Attribution of these clinical findings to immune-mediated disturbances associated with SLE remains difficult and has compromised research efforts in these areas. Improved understanding of the role of the immune system in neurologic processes essential for cognition including synaptic plasticity, long term potentiation and adult neurogenesis suggests multiple potential mechanisms for altered central nervous system function associated with a chronic inflammatory illness such as SLE.

Source: Lupus brain fog: a biologic perspective on cognitive impairment, depression, and fatigue in systemic lupus erythematosus

“Cognitive disturbances”. Not quite enough in my view. The title does, however refer to cognitive impairment.

Although widely used, I find brain fog to be a somewhat dismissive term – it just does not sound as serious as cognitive impairment.

Because mine was relatively minor, only really noticeable to me, I asked other patients about their experiences. Here’s what they had to say. I am sorry I couldn’t use all the responses I received!

“To me it’s like trying to fight through treacle.” ~ A

“I cant cope with multiple processes. I need things written down.” ~ J

“One recent trip [overseas] hubby went on, the flight wasn’t direct and took more than twice the time to get there. I was hysterical, and had zero recollection of the change in flight timing.” ~ N (Note, this patient does have a Functional Neurological Disorder diagnosis)

“… impossible to do more than one thing at a time. I can’t cook and carry on a conversation. I can’t wash clothes and pay bills …” ~ T

“I just don’t trust myself with details anymore. When making med appts etc I check and double check and still get things wrong. My confidence is so low when doing paperwork etc” ~ J

“I sometimes think it is more debilitating than the pain as I have learnt to push through the pain but I can’t push through the fog.” ~ M

“When my brain fog is bad I cannot process people’s speech. I describe it as words floating past me like pretty butterflies – I hear them so know they are there, but they have no meaning.” ~ F

“I wish more people understood that it’s not just being forgetful.” ~ Hannah, who writes at Sunshine and Spoons and has ehlers danlos syndrome.

Language is important. The terms we use are important. Cognitive impairment is damn important.

In chatting to my gastroenterologist one day, I complained about cognitive impairment. I said to him, “If I were a doctor, I would have to give up practicing.” His eyes nearly popped out of his head. “Really?”, he asked. He and I have known each other quite some time now – he knows I am not the type to exaggerate. I knew from his reaction I had spoken in a language he understood.

The reality is I could do my accounting or IT roles in a wheelchair. True, my personal trainer hat would be more difficult in that case. I can’t do those jobs without my cognitive abilities. If I do make a mistake though, I am not risking anyone’s health outcomes. If I was a surgeon, in the middle of surgery and I forgot or could not decide where to cut next: that could be a problem. If I misread a blood test result, or prescribed the wrong dose of a medication (although pharmacists are a double check with prescribing) the impact on the patient could be negative.

Although my cognitive impairment has been very mild compared to other patients, I would still notice it. I knew it was there. In the early days of my illness, before we got things under control, it was worse. Even so, I was so ecstatic when this happened:

Remembering that number was so fantastic (to me) I emailed the clinical trial co-ordinator to tell her! I was in a meeting at the time and I was clearly excited. I was ecstatic! I have written before about brain fog – like fatigue, it is something many chronic illness patients battle with.

Source: A Clinical Trial – Patient Journey – Part III

Of course, fatigue and cognitive impairment go hand in hand in many situations. This is well known and why workers should not be driving home after very long hours. Yes, they could fall asleep at the wheel, but also their reaction times will be impaired.

The quotation above from the SLE study indicates how difficult research is into this area, as it is with fatigue. There can be SO MANY contributing factors: the underlying condition, medications, pain, fatigue, poor nutrition, lack of adequate hydration, lack of exercise, poor sleep, onset of menopause, age (MCI for example) – the list goes on. My objective is to highlight the seriousness of it. I would love to see the term brain fog done away with. When I mention it as a symptom, I want to see the reaction I got from my gastroenterologist – acknowledgement that this IS A SERIOUS ISSUE. Let’s have a serious name for it.

I have REALLY noticed the improvement, since the new medication kicked in. I feel my reaction times when driving are normal, I remember where I put my glasses, I’m writing (you can judge whether I’m writing well or poorly!), my concentration lasts well into the evening, I don’t need a shopping list.

This is great for me, but my thoughts are of the other chronic illness patients out there struggling to get their health providers to acknowledge the seriousness of this particular symptom on their quality of life – including employability. I’m also well aware that even if it IS acknowledged, we may be a long way from finding solutions – but if science don’t consider it a serious issue, science won’t look for solutions.

After I wrote the fatigue article (linked above), I had one patient say to me she has simply given up mentioning fatigue to her doctor. I understand why, but we can’t give up because then doctors don’t see it as being as important as it is. Unless, of course, they suffer one of these conditions themselves and have been through it.

In the five years I’ve had my conditions, I’ve been asked MANY times about my pain levels. About my mobility. I do not recall EVER being asked about fatigue or cognitive impairment. Now, to be fair, the generic “How are you feeling?” could be an all encompassing question, but I’ve never got the impression it was including either of these symptoms by default.

So – over to you, fellow patients!

  • Do you experience cognitive impairment/brain fog?
  • Do you prefer “cognitive impairment” (or some similar name) or “brain fog”?
  • Do you, as a chronic illness patient, feel cognitive impairment as a symptom of your underlying condition is seen as important by the medical profession?
  • What impact does cognitive impairment/brain fog have on your quality of life?
  • Do you feel in your case it results from pain, medications, fatigue or is it a separate symptom of your condition?
  • Do you think your family and friends understand your cognitive impairment/brain fog?
  • Has it impacted your career, work choices or employability?
  • If you are a family member of a chronic illness patient, do you feel you understand?
  • In your experience, is cognitive impairment/brain fog adequately recognised?
  • Anything else you would like to share?

PLEASE NOTE: Cognitive impairment can be caused by a great number of medical situations and can range from annoying to critically serious – this article is ONLY addressing where it is a symptom of an underlying condition, such as described in the SLE quotation provided above. If you are concerned about ANY change in your cognitive abilities, please consult your doctor.