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19 Jun 2023

Ageing and focus

The brain

Part of ageing is the inevitable slowing down of functions that before might be considered a ‘no brainer’ in effort.

One of these is focus and the tendency to get more and more easily distracted.

Like it or not the brain’s cognitive power—being the ability to learn, remember and solve problems—slows down as we get older.

According to information from United States-based Harvard Medical School this ageing process can make it harder to conjure up familiar facts. Or make focussing on two or more activities, or information sources, harder.

Overall, most people start to notice changes as they enter their 50s and 60s. One of the first manifestations is hearing loss. Making it all the more challenging to distinguish speech in a noisy environment. Because hearing then requires more concentration than usual, even mild loss of the ability to focus can affect speech comprehension. For many that is worrying.

Although these changes can cause consternation, most age-related memory and thinking problems don’t stem from an underlying brain disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, says the Harvard University findings, what appears to be a memory problem may simply reflect a slower processing speed and poor encoding and retrieval of new memories as a result of diminished attention.

The ‘up-side’ is that even though your brain may be slower to learn and recall new information, your ability to make sense of what you know remains in place.

Change over time
Structural changes that take place in your brain as you age can also explain some of these developments. Brain regions involved with memory processing, such as the hippocampus and especially the frontal lobes, undergo anatomical and neurochemical changes over time.

The result is that as you age, it takes longer to absorb, process, and remember new information. The natural loss of receptors and neurons that occurs with ageing may also make it harder to concentrate. With slower processing, facts held in working memory may dissipate before you have had a chance to solve a problem.

In addition, the ability to perform tasks that involve executive function (ability to plan, organise, and complete tasks) declines with age. Many people learn to compensate for these changes by relying on habit most of the time and devoting extra effort to focus on new information they are trying to learn.

Even the aches and pains of getting older can affect focus. Pain itself is distracting, and some of the medications used to treat it also can affect concentration.

‘No Brainer’ hints for cognitive preservation

A growing body of scientific research suggests that the following steps are linked to cognitive health. Small changes may really add up. Making these part of your routine could help you function better.

  1. Take Care of Your Physical Health.
  2. Manage High Blood Pressure.
  3. Eat Healthy Foods.
  4. Be Physically Active.
  5. Keep Your Mind Active.
  6. Stay Connected with Social Activities.
  7. Manage Stress.
  8. Reduce Risks to Cognitive Health.

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Date Published: June 2023

To be reviewed: June 2026