Many older adults have trouble maintaining focus and concentration as part of natural, age-related cognitive decline. However, it can also be a sign your brain’s executive function skills are eroding and the early onset of mild cognitive impairment.
Executive function involves a combination of brain functions that handle issues such as making plans and decisions, as well as the ability to concentrate and pay attention. “It acts much like the captain of the ship,” Joe Salinas, a neurologist with Massachusetts General Hospital, said in an article for Harvard Health Publishing.
Recent research from the University of Southern California found that the loss of executive function, concentration and ability to focus is related to the locus coeruleus, a region of the brain stem that connects to many other brain regions. The locus coeruleus helps to focus attention when you experience stress or excitement.
The study found the locus coeruleus does not work as well in older people, who get more distracted when they feel stress or experience strong emotions. The locus coeruleus also is one of the regions of the brain where researchers have seen early emergence of tau tangles and amyloids, considered a sign of impending cognitive decline.
The good news is that it’s possible to improve concentration and focus. It simply requires a commitment to adopting new habits.
How Can You Improve Your Ability to Concentrate?
Both aerobic exercise and cognitive stimulation can help improve executive function as you age. Activities such as hiking, Nordic walking and light jogging can not only improve brain function but also reduce depressive symptoms.
Much like a muscle improves with exercise, your brain improves with stimulation. This extends to your ability to concentrate. In addition to a healthy amount of exercise, consider adopting some of the following ideas into your daily routine.
“Multitasking” is a myth. Don’t try doing two things at once or switching back and forth between tasks. You can improve concentration by focusing on one task at a time, completing it, then moving on to the next one. If something in your area distracts you, including electronic equipment, remove it or turn it off. Also, shut down the notifications on your phone. If you are working on a computer, do not go on the Internet.
Stop With Marathon Work Sessions
Working for long hours on one thing is not productive. Research has shown that people achieve high quality work when they do it in small chunks of time with rest periods between each one. This helps with focus. Otherwise, if you try to do one thing for a long period of time, the mind begins to wander. There’s no set length of time that works best for everyone, so try different timeframes and find what works best for you.
Learn Something New
To boost executive function, stimulate your brain by getting outside of your typical habits and learn something new. The key is picking something that will engage you, but not overwhelm you. This can include playing a musical instrument, learning to cook, taking up painting or learning a new language. These also have the benefit of reducing stress and promoting a more optimistic outlook on life.
Be Aware of Caffeine, Sugar Intake
Avoiding simple sugars and focusing on eating vegetables and fruits can keep you from having the spikes and drops in blood sugar levels that impact concentration. Caffeine can make you sharper mentally, but too much caffeine can make it more difficult to focus. The key is to keep track of what you eat and drink and notice if anything is impacting your ability to concentrate. If so, eliminate or reduce it.
Keep In Touch With Others
Brain function improves in people who remain social as they age. Having a strong social circle also reduces feelings of depression and loneliness, which can impact attention. Speaking with friends requires that you practice focus by paying attention to what they say, which can help you maintain the ability to concentrate.