Are dates, details and daily tasks feeling a bit fuzzy these past couple of years? It’s not just you, experts say.
It’s not laziness or losing your sharpness – being in a global pandemic for the last two years is actually making it harder for our brains to make and recall memories, said Amir-Homayoun Javadi, a senior lecturer in cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.
“We tend to habituate and get used to situations,” said Javadi, who is also the chief executive officer of Active-Class, a learning management system. “The situation for the past two years has pushed us to not do much and not to plan.”
And getting too used to life in this time can mean cognitive damage, memory disruption and trouble maintaining attention, he added.
Contrary to how some people might imagine it, capturing a memory isn’t like taking a picture of a moment. It can often be impacted by the context of the situation, Michael Yassa, a professor of neurobiology, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta on the podcast Chasing Life.
Pandemic living can make it much more difficult to form a memory at all, let alone call it back when we need it, said Yassa, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California, Irvine.
“Sometimes we’re a little bit harder on ourselves. We think, ‘Oh, how did I forget this? This is something that should be so natural for me to store,’” he said. “But it turns out that something happened during encoding that made it actually impossible for you to even get this memory onboard to begin with.
“So, if we’re sleep deprived, if we’re stressed, if we’ve got a million things on our minds, we’re much more likely to be inattentive in that manner and then attribute it later to some sort of forgetting.”
For those who have gotten Covid-19 and even those who have not, many of the aspects of living during pandemic can be inhibiting memory – but they also can be solved with changes you can make at home, said Rudy Tanzi, the Joseph P. and Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Neurology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Genetics and Aging Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.
A virus might be slowing down your memory
Even without the brain fog that comes with catching the virus, the sameness of the days, lack of social interaction and decreased exercise can make it much more difficult to make memories, Javadi said.
While in lockdown or not participating in your pre-pandemic activities, each day may look similar. This sameness takes away the anchors that help us organize our memories.
Take going to the movies, Javadi suggested. If you make plans to go see a movie you are excited about on Saturday, you have an unusual event by which you can break up the days. You might remember that the stressful meeting happened before the movies or that the funny conversation you had with your brother happened after.
But when it’s harder to leave the house and many people aren’t even going into an office to differentiate the weekdays from the weekends, the brain has fewer anchoring events to orient memories, Javadi said.
After that Saturday movie, let’s say you met a friend for lunch on Sunday. That Sunday social event would give you the opportunity to discuss your thoughts and reactions to the movie, as well as any context from your week leading up to it. That repetition of the information is important in helping your brain solidify those events, Javadi said.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has limited our ability to gather safely with loved ones many times in recent years, making that practice of sharing and repeating much less frequent, he added.
How to remedy your memory
Whether the cause is the virus, the monotony or the stress, disruptions in your memory can be treated with some simple lifestyle changes, Tanzi said.
He uses the acronym SHIELD when explaining how to keep your brain healthy: sleep, handle stress, interact socially, exercise, learn new things and diet.
Sleeping adequately, exercising for at least 20 minutes a day, maintaining a healthy diet, and managing stress with relaxation or meditation techniques are all important for keeping blood flowing and inflammation minimized in the brain, Tanzi said.
“Even if you didn’t have Covid or brain fog, the more you practice SHIELD, the more you set your baseline inflammation down, so that if you do get Covid, at least your starting baseline was lower,” he said.
And if you are experiencing brain fog, it may be helpful to cut out alcohol and recreational drugs for the time being to reduce the inflammation that could be making it worse, Tanzi added.
It may be tempting to numb the stress or sameness of the day, but it’s important to try to keep up social interactions and learning new things – whether that be reading a new book, taking up a new skill or even just walking around your neighborhood and noticing something you never have before, Tanzi said.
While that serves the critical function of keeping your brain engaged, it also can create those anchors your memory needs, said Javadi, who also recommended scheduling things to look forward to and drawing boundaries between work and leisure time for those working from home.
For those wrestling with brain fog from a Covid-19 infection, it’s normal for the symptom to linger for several months after the infection, Tanzi said. If your fuzzy memory persists after a year, however, it may be time to speak with a neurologist to see if there is more going on, he added.
Questions about how the virus has impacted the brain may continue to be investigated for decades to come, Tanzi said.