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The Foggy Brain Dead Zone.

The Foggy Brain Dead Zone

Have you ever seen an old Sherlock Holmes movie? All the old films ends with Holmes and Watson chasing the nefarious villain through a maze of London alleyways covered in a dark, dense fog that almost blinds them. Yeah. That’s what it’s like in my head some days. Brain fog.
Brain fog.

Have you ever read The Dead Zone by Stephen King? The hero, Johnny Smith, wakes up after a coma and discovers he has a degree of brain damage. The dead zone is the part of his brain where he knows what words are describing but can’t picture it in his mind. The image simply isn’t there. Of course, he also gets the power to glimpse into the future when he touches someone, but I can’t relate to that power. I relate to not placing words when someone’s talking to me. Yeah. That’s what it’s like in my head some days. The dead zone.

The dead zone.

Brain fog.

The foggy brain dead zone.

I like scientific phrases like that.


Maybe I should write a new horror book. My hero would be a middle aged lady with COPD who solves crimes from her bed with premonitions. All the excitement would be in her fog-filled bits of brain where she hunts down words. I’d make a million.

So what exactly is brain fog?

It’s like this:
“Remember? We talked about this last week.”

“Um…”

“We need your name, date of birth, and Social Security number.”

“Um…”

“So what did you think of the story I sent you?”

“Um…”

It’s not that I don’t know my own name or date of birth, etc. It’s just that as soon as I’m asked for that kind of information it hides in the foggy alleyways of my brain.

Um…

Or if I’m feeling classy I substitute, “Well...”

I find myself uttering that one non-word syllable a lot lately. “Um...” It’s begging to sound like I’m meditating all the time because I say it so much. “Um, um, um...”

Have you ever been in a conversation and realized that you hadn’t grasped what your friend was saying for some minutes now? You knew the words they were saying but they just had no meaning for you? Have you ever completely blanked out when someone asked you a question? You knew you knew the answer but your brain just couldn’t come up with how to communicate that answer?

That is brain fog. Most people with COPD or other chronic illnesses have it. Lucky us.
Brain fog is not an official medical term, if you can believe it. “Clouding of the Consciousness” (boy, we like weather analogies) or “cognitive impairment” are the phrases used in proper medical circles. Some people call it brain fatigue but that just conjures up images of sleeping and that makes me want to take a nap. Actually, I’ll take any excuse to take a nap. I like to nap.

But why do we get this brain fog?

LOW OXYGEN LEVELS

It’s not all in our imagination. For once it’s true that it’s all in our heads. The link between brain fog and COPD is real.1

A study by Borson, Scanlan, et al confirmed that there is a definite link between cognitive impairment and COPD.2 The findings suggest that lower amounts of oxygen when we’re active, what we know as desaturation, leads to higher amounts of an essential vitamin-like nutrient called choline. Elevated levels of choline causes specific changes in white matter and brain neurochemistry that sustains mild cognitive impairment.

Another study, “Reduced Regional Gray Matter Volume in Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: A Voxel-Based Morphometry Study”used 3D MRI imaging of both brains of patients with COPD and of healthy people to show that there were differences in the two. Their findings suggest that changes in the grey matter in several areas of the brain for COPD patients may cause the confusion and memory loss we sometimes feel.3 Again, they link it to having less oxygen in our blood.

Luckily for us, the loss of our brain function is pretty small. The Brazil Journal of Pulmonology published an article in March 2015 of another study which found that “the prevalence of cognitive impairment in patients with COPD was found to be associated with the severity of the disease, being 3.9% among patients with mild COPD, 5.7% among patients with moderate COPD, and 7.7% among patients with severe COPD.”4

DEPRESSION

Depression and anxiety are also culprits of brain fog5. Depression can be so overwhelming it’s hard to remember things and to pay attention. When all you’re doing is thinking about being miserable it can be difficult for your brain to switch to think about what people are saying to you or what you’re supposed to do that day.

So what do we do about it?

1. Get tested.

The study by Soo Borson and James Scanlan in 2008 suggested that blood oxygen levels should be tested during our activities.6 Which translates into the Six Minute Walking Test, if you’re familiar with that. It’s basically what it says. You are hooked up to a meter that measures oxygen levels in your bloodstream as you walk for six minutes. This lets your doctor or specialist know if your levels go down, which can cause damage and problems with memory, etc. They can then prescribe oxygen supplementation and the earlier that’s prescribed, the better.

The same study recommended sleep study tests as well to measure any degree of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can also cause oxygen deprivation. Again, your doctor can prescribe a CPAP, which is a machine that gives you extra oxygen as you sleep.

The Brazilian study urged assessing our cognitive function as a routine part of our evaluation as COPD patients.7 This could help your doctor or specialist know how your COPD is affecting your mind as well as your lungs.

2. Medicine

Always take your prescribed inhalers. These help you breathe better and help raise your oxygen levels. Medication for problems we can also have with COPD, like high blood pressure, allergies, GERD, depression, anxiety, etc. are just as important as our inhalers. So you need so make sure you take them too.

3. Stay away from smoke and air pollution.

I think we hear this one so often that I don’t need to explain it. Just know that it’s good advice.

4. Exercise

I always like to exercise in the morning. No, that’s not true. I don’t actually like it.

But I take a walk every day that I can anyway.

Do your pulmonary rehabilitation exercises. Swim, walk, do yoga, play a wind instrument, whatever helps keep your lungs functioning and your heart happy. The COPD Foundation (copdfoundation.org) recommends exercise as a way to improve shortness of breath, and help retain muscle condition, which is important because we are so limited.

5. Brain exercises

I haven’t researched the scientific impact of keeping your brain busy on your brain’s health but I bet it wouldn’t be hard to find studies that show it’s true. I love to give my brain a workout – in the form of reading, researching, playing brain games and word puzzles, and continuing to learn. Even if it doesn’t help physically, at least it keeps me from being bored. And a bored Michelle is a bad Michelle.

I hope this article helps you to understand that your brain fog is real, it’s pretty normal for us COPD patients, and there are things that can help us.

Meanwhile, I’ll be over here in the corner writing down some alleyway word hunt mysteries…

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The COPD.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. “Modeling the Impact of COPD on the Brain” Soo Borson, James Scanlan, 2008 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2629981/
  2. “Reduced Regional Gray Matter Volume in Patients with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease: a Voxel-based MorphometryStudy,” Zhang, et al. American Journal of Neuroradiology, Feb 2013 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22859277
  3.  “Cognitive Impairment in COPD: A Systematic Review,” Irene Torres-Sánchez, et al.Brazil Journal of Pulmonology vol.41 no.2 São Paulo Mar./Apr 2015. http://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S1806-37132015000200182&script=sci_arttext&tlng=pt
  4.  “Cognitive Function in Depression: a Distinct Pattern of Frontal Impairment in Melancholia?”, Austin MP, et al, Physchological Medicine, 1999 Jan;29(1):73-85.

Comments

  • MaritaF
    2 years ago

    We are all in this together, thanks for input!!

  • Jenn Patel
    2 years ago

    So true, MaritaF! Thanks for sharing. Wishing you a good day today. Best, Jenn (COPD.net Team)

  • Casey Hribar moderator
    2 years ago

    Definitely, MaritaF! We’re here for you, and our community is all in this together! -Casey, COPD.net Team

  • ValerieMc
    2 years ago

    So….it’s not “just me”! Bless you for writing this article!

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    2 years ago

    No ValerieMc – it’s never ‘just you’. You are never alone here. Many of our community members experience similar situations with their COPD and are all too happy to share them with others here.
    All the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • michelle.vincent moderator author
    2 years ago

    No, it’s definitely not just you; you are in some great company. I’m glad you liked the article.

  • caroly
    2 years ago

    Oh my, can I ever understand this. I took the cat to the vet the other day. They asked me, ‘what’s the cat’s name?’. Uh…. I don’t have a clue what my cat’s name is…. Sigh.

    This article is so helpful. My brain fog is very worrisome. It descends at the most inopportune times. Where am I? What am I forgetting? What day is it? Have I taken my meds? Did I feed the dog (the cat doesn’t let me forget!)?

    I’ll try to exercise more. I’m a crossword and jumble puzzle wizard now. Onward.

  • michelle.vincent moderator author
    2 years ago

    I was filling out paperwork at the doctor’s office today and blanked on my street address. The day didn’t get better from there. 🙂

    I’m glad the article was helpful to you. I’m a crossword lover too! Good luck.

  • MaritaF
    2 years ago

    I experience this, was very worrisome to me, thanks for explaining some moments that made me think I was not normal.

  • Casey Hribar moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi conbib! We completely hear where you’re coming from with this, and you’re so not alone! (As I think you can tell from this article and some of the comments!!) I found another article you may be interested in on fighting brain fog, since you mentioned wanting to try to fight it! You can find more these tips here, https://copd.net/living/fight-that-brain-fog/ If you get a chance to read this article, let us know what you think! Sending warm thoughts your way! -Casey, COPD.net Team

  • conbib
    2 years ago

    Wow, I knew my menapause and age were to blame for my horrible memory past year or so. I really didn’t attribute any of it to my COPD. I should’ve known, makes perfect sense. My grown children (1 still lives with me) get pretty frustrated with me at times. H**l, I get frustrated with myself. I can def relate to all the comments above. Is there no way to remedy?

  • michelle.vincent moderator author
    2 years ago

    Yes, you are very normal if you have brain fog. Thank you for letting me know my article and my experiences could help you. Take care!

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