Because you just walked into that room and can't remember what you came in for. Or, you put your coffee mug down somewhere in the house. And did you turn your ringer off your phone? Because that's missing, too.
You're feeling forgetful these days. So, when is it normal and when are the brain farts the sign of a bigger problem?
"To some degree, memory loss is normal in our society. As responsibilities increase and stress levels rise, we tend to neglect some things our brain needs," Scott Noorda, DO, a family medicine physician and brain health expert in St. George, Utah, tells LIVESTRONG.com. In other words, things that get in the way of self-care — e.g. overwhelming stress, lack of sleep — tend to be fuzzy-brain culprits.
Warning signs that you should see your doctor include sudden onset of memory problems, any symptoms of an infection (fever, chills, nausea, vomiting) or head trauma, Dr. Noorda says.
In addition, it's one thing to forget where you left your keys, "but if you forget why you even went to the store or how to get home, that's a different ballgame," Dr. Noorda says. It's normal to blank on someone's name, but if you forget why you went to someone's house or how you even know them, that's cause for concern.
If your brain blips are more of an occasional annoyance, you're in good company. Here are six things that can cause forgetfulness:
1. You’re Stressed to the Max
When your brain is hopping from one thing to the next, it's tough to really focus.
"To truly learn and remember something, you need to have focused attention on it," Dr. Noorda says. And a monkey brain interferes with that process.
What's more, chronically elevated cortisol (the stress hormone) tosses your brain into survival mode, which works against your ability to store new memories, he says.
Dr. Noorda's advice? Find one stress-relieving activity you enjoy — exercise, being out in nature, reading a book — and do it every day.
2. You’re Not Sleeping Enough
Are you clocking the 7-plus hours the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends adults get?
Sleep does a lot more for you than just help you feel refreshed, awake and energetic the next day: Snoozing plays a major role in memory consolidation, or the act of taking short-term memories and converting them into long-term memories, Dr. Noorda says.
In a May 2014 study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, older middle-aged women who slept either 5 hours or fewer or more than 9 hours a day had worse cognition scores compared to those getting 7 hours — the equivalent of having a brain two years older.
3. You’re Depressed
People who have depression also experience worse memory performance and ability to recall information, notes a January 2018 study in Psychological Medicine, likely because of the increase in cortisol that accompanies depression, which is a stressful condition.
"Depression is probably the most common thing that overlaps with cognitive impairment. When you're unable to think about anything besides struggles with depression, your memory can be affected," Dr. Noorda says.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, other symptoms of depression include:
- Feeling sad, anxious or "empty" most of the time
- Decreased energy, or feeling tired
- Having feelings of hopelessness or helplessness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Thoughts of death or suicide
4. You Have an Infection
Meningitis, chronic Lyme disease, and urinary tract infections can somewhat surprisingly manifest as brain fog and memory problems, Dr. Noorda says.
If you have other symptoms of illness, like a fever, chills, nausea or vomiting, or burning or frequent urination, see your doctor right away.
5. It’s Your Thyroid
Your thyroid is a gland at the base of your neck that make hormones that control a whole lot of body processes, including your metabolism. If your thyroid function has slowed, a condition called hypothyroidism, it also affects your brain function.
A very small study in the journal Thyroid in March 2014 looked at MRIs of the brain in adults who had hypothyroidism compared to controls. Those in the hypothyroid group had less volume in their right hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in learning and memory that's packed with thyroid receptors.
Hypothyroidism can occur because of autoimmune diseases that attack the gland, certain medications (such as lithium) and pituitary gland damage, according to the American Thyroid Association. If you have other symptoms of thyroid disease, such as cold intolerance, dry skin, fatigue or depression, talk to your doctor about whether you should get tested.
6. You Have a Nutrient Deficiency
Any type of anemia, such as iron or vitamin B12 deficiency, may manifest as brain fog and forgetfulness, Dr. Noorda says.
In fact, a July 2020 Medicine study on older adults found that those who have sufficient levels of B12 perform better on memory and other cognitive tests.
What's more, past research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed young women who were moderately deficient in iron scored worse on cognitive tasks compare to those who had sufficient levels of the nutrient, but iron supplementation boosted their cognitive performance five- to seven-fold. In short, their brains were speedier and more efficient.
Before supplementing, ask your doctor if you should have your B12 or iron levels checked, which can be done with a simple blood test.
Is This an Emergency?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “How much Sleep Do I Need?
- Journal of the American Geriatrics Society: Sleep Duration in Midlife and Later Life in Relation to Cognition”
- Psychological Medicine: “Symptoms of depression in a large healthy population cohort are related to subjective memory complaints and memory performance in negative contexts”
- Thyroid: “Hippocampal volume is decreased in adults with hypothyroidism”
- Medicine: “Association between vitamin B12 levels and cognitive function in the elderly Korean population”
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Iron treatment normalizes cognitive functioning in young women”
- National Institute of Mental Health: "Depression"