Cog fog is a common symptom of MS that causes issues with memory, attention, and information processing. Several lifestyle changes, including immediate and long-term strategies, can help make cog fog more manageable.
If you’re living with multiple sclerosis (MS), you’ve probably lost several minutes — if not hours — searching your house for a misplaced item like your keys or wallet, only to find it somewhere random, like the kitchen pantry or medicine cabinet.
You’re not alone. Cog fog, or MS-related brain fog, affects many people living with MS. In fact, it’s estimated that more than half of people living with MS will develop cognitive issues like difficulty understanding conversations, thinking critically, or recalling memories.
MSers call this symptom “cog fog,” short for cognitive fog. It’s also referred to as brain fog, changes in cognition, or cognitive impairment.
Losing your train of thought mid-sentence, forgetting why you entered a room, or trying to remember a friend’s name are all possibilities when cog fog strikes.
Krysia Hepatica, an entrepreneur with MS, describes how her brain works differently now. “The information is there. It just takes longer to access it,” she tells Healthline.
“For instance, if someone asks me a question about a particular detail from days or weeks before, I can’t always immediately pull it up. It slowly comes back in chunks. It’s like sifting through an old-school card catalog instead of just Googling it. Analog versus digital. Both work, one is just slower,” Hepatica explains.
Lucie Linder was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting MS in 2007 and says that cog fog has also been a significant issue for her. “The sudden memory loss, disorientation, and mental sluggishness that can strike at any minute are not so fun,” she remarks.
Linder describes times when she’s unable to focus or concentrate on a task because her brain feels like it’s slush in thick mud.
Fortunately, she’s found that cardio exercise helps her blast through that stuck feeling.
For the most part, cognitive changes will be mild to moderate and won’t be so severe that you aren’t able to take care of yourself. But it can make what used to be simple tasks — like shopping for groceries — pretty darn frustrating.
MS is a central nervous system disease
“As a result, [people with MS] can have cognitive issues that typically involve slowness of processing, trouble multitasking, and distractibility,” explains Dr. David Mattson, a neurologist at Indiana University Health.
Some more common areas of life that are affected by cognitive changes include memory, attention and concentration, verbal fluency, and information processing.
Mattson points out that no one MS lesion causes this, but cog fog seems more associated with an increased overall number of MS lesions in the brain.
“Those who experience fatigue may find it more difficult to complete tasks later in the day, have a lower ability to withstand certain environments such as extreme heat, and struggle with sleep disorders or depression,” Mattson adds.
Olivia Djouadi, who has relapsing-remitting MS, says that her cognitive problems seem to occur more with extreme fatigue, which can stop her in her tracks. And as an academic, she says that the brain fog is particularly awful.
“It means I get forgetful over simple details, yet can still remember complex items,” she explains. “It’s very frustrating because I know I knew the answer, but it won’t come to me.”
The good news: There are immediate and long-term strategies for decreasing cog fog or even just making it a bit more manageable.
Doctors and patients can both feel frustrated at the lack of treatment options for the cognitive issues accompanying MS.
It’s critical for healthcare professionals to offer support and validation to their patients with MS who are experiencing changes in their cognition, says Dr. Victoria Leavitt, a clinical neuropsychologist at ColumbiaDoctors and assistant professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center.
However, Leavitt believes that lifestyle factors can make a difference in the absence of treatments. “Modifiable factors that are in our control can help change the way a person with MS lives to best protect their brain,” she tells Healthline.
Leavitt says that the classic trio of modifiable lifestyle factors that may help with cognitive function include diet, exercise, and intellectual enrichment.
Hepatica has found that eating healthy fats like avocado, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter helps her cog fog.
Healthy fats, or foods rich in omega-3s, are known for their role in brain health.
In addition to avocados and coconut oil, include some of these in your diet:
- seafood like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and cod
- extra-virgin olive oil
- chia seeds and flaxseeds
Exercise has been studied for years as a way to help people with MS deal with the daily struggles of cog fog. In fact, a
But it’s not just the favorable impact that exercise has on the brain that’s important. Engaging in physical activity is also good for your body and mental health.
Though any type of exercise is beneficial, aerobic exercise may be especially effective at improving cognitive function in people with MS.
In addition, a
Intellectual enrichment includes those things you do to keep your brain challenged.
Participating in daily activities such as word and number games, or thought-challenging exercises like crossword, Sudoku, and jigsaw puzzles, can help keep your brain fresh and engaged. Playing these or other board games with friends or family can also spark more benefits.
To get the biggest brain-boosting benefits, learn a new skill or language, or pick up a new hobby.
While implementing long-term solutions for cog fog is important, you’ll also likely benefit from some tips that’ll provide immediate relief.
Hepatica says some additional strategies that work for her when she’s experiencing cog fog are taking good notes, writing everything down on her calendar, and multitasking as little as possible. “It is preferable for me to start and finish tasks before moving on to start something new,” she says.
Mattson agrees with these strategies and says that his patients do best when they make notes, avoid distractions, and do one thing at a time. He also recommends finding the time of day when you’re fresh and energetic and doing your more difficult tasks during that time.
- Use an organization technique like lists or Post-It notes.
- Focus on doing one task at a time in a quiet, distraction-free space.
- Use the time of day you have the most energy for the most difficult tasks.
- Ask family and friends to speak more slowly to give you more time to process information.
- Practice deep breathing to reduce the stress and frustration of brain fog.
Long-term game plan
- Eat brain food packed with healthy fats or omega-3s like avocado, salmon, and walnuts.
- Take a walk or indulge in another form of exercise you love regularly.
- Learn something new to challenge your brain.
If you’re having trouble fitting these strategies into your life, Leavitt says to talk with a doctor or medical professional. They can help you come up with a plan to make these things work.
One tip she does like to stress is: Start small and set very realistic goals until you feel success. “You have to do things that you like for them to become a habit,” she says.
Leavitt is also looking into the role sleep, social networks, and connectedness with the community play in how people with MS deal with changes in cognition. She believes that those factors along with aerobic exercise, diet, and intellectual enrichment are all excellent ways to protect against future decline.
“I see this as a really promising area for research,” she says. “Ultimately, we need to translate our evidence and our findings into treatments.”
While living with MS and dealing with cog fog can be a real challenge, Hepatica says that she tries not to let it get her down. “I just accept that my brain works in a different way now, and I’m thankful to have strategies that help,” she explains.
Read on for answers to more questions about MS cog fog.
Does MS brain fog go away?
While MS brain fog may not go away completely, there are many ways to make symptoms more manageable. Focusing on completing one thing at a time, using checklists or reminders to remember tasks, and eliminating or removing yourself from distractions may help improve cognitive function in people with MS.
How do you fix MS brain fog?
Staying active, following a balanced diet, and finding activities that engage your mind can help support cognitive health and improve brain fog symptoms.
Does MS make your brain feel weird?
It’s estimated that more than half of people with MS develop issues with cognition over time. This may include difficulty with processing information, retaining or retrieving memories, or planning and prioritizing tasks.
Sara Lindberg, BS, M.Ed, is a freelance health and fitness writer. She holds a bachelor’s in exercise science and a master’s degree in counseling. She’s spent her life educating people on the importance of health, wellness, mindset, and mental health. She specializes in the mind-body connection, with a focus on how our mental and emotional well-being impact our physical fitness and health.