At 55, my focus started to fray. I had to ask my teenage daughter to stop chatting during tricky highway merges. I penciled “COUNT!!!” across my community orchestra music, to avoid getting lost in long strings of repeated notes. I wrote multiple to-do lists and forgot new neighbors’ names. Turns out, I was completely normal and there was something I could do about the problem.
Aging shrinks the brain by about 5 percent between age 45 and age 60, says brain researcher Ted Zanto, associate professor of neurology at the University of California, San Francisco. Sounds small, but it could help explain why the ability to pay attention and tune out distractions begins to decline before age 50. Around then, your brain also has to start coping with the full catastrophe of midlife. Rebellious kids! Aging parents! Work! Money! Menopause! Throw in constant interruptions from our digital devices and “you might start feeling overwhelmed,” says neuroscientist Denise Park, director of the Park Aging Mind Laboratory at the University of Texas at Dallas.
Join today and save 43% off the standard annual rate. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Luckily it isn’t all bad news. The brain has a wondrous plasticity, and you can help it adjust and refocus by taking up a few simple, healthy habits.
Get a move on.
Couch potatoes who started getting 30 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise — think treadmills and exercise bikes — four times a week improved their executive function, a 2019 Columbia University study found. The volunteers in their 40s, 50s and 60s were the ones who got the biggest benefits. And scans showed that the cortical thickness in exercisers’ brains had actually increased after six months. “It has convinced me to build exercise into my schedule,” says lead researcher Yaakov Stern, chief of cognitive neuroscience in the Department of Neurology at Columbia.
Insomniacs have a tougher time ignoring distractions than normal sleepers, according to a 2019 Australian study, and the worse their sleep, the worse their ability to concentrate. According to another study of more than 5,000 participants over five years, those who started sleeping less than six to eight hours a night demonstrated a drop in thinking skills equal to four to seven years of aging, compared with study subjects who were still getting their z’s. To help protect your brain from such a slowdown, make a point of getting to bed on time, and get treatment for any sleep disorders that may arise, such as obstructive sleep apnea.
Re-center with meditation
Chronic stress can shrink connections between brain cells and even reduce the size of the hippocampus, a brain area involved with memory. The antidote? Daily mindfulness meditation, says Julia Basso, an assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise and director of the Embodied Brain Lab at Virginia Tech. In her 2018 study, adults who meditated for eight weeks saw improvements in working memory and attention. As little as 10 minutes a day shows a benefit. Smartphone apps that teach you to meditate include Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer.
“A big part of the reason people feel scattered, forgetful, in the midst of some sort of cognitive decline is our multitasking, technology-rich, distraction-laden existence,” says Maura Thomas, a productivity expert based in Austin, Texas, and author of Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day. Juggling two or more activities that require concentration isn’t a time-saver, especially for a midlife brain, notes Zanto.
“There’s a cost to task switching,” he says. “If your phone rings or email dings, it disrupts your train of thought.” Getting back on track takes significantly longer than if you hadn’t been interrupted. Thomas suggests turning off notifications on your devices for scheduled chunks of time during the workday so you can focus. Let people know in advance. “What’s the boss going to say — don’t focus; don’t get your work done?” Thomas asks. Time-management strategies such as the Pomodoro technique could also help: Set a timer for 25 minutes and commit to focusing on just one task until it rings. Then take a five-minute break and start over.
Manage menopausal symptoms
Hot flashes caused by hormone shifts can interfere with the brain’s ability to encode memories, according to research by Pauline Maki, M.D., director of the Women’s Mental Health Research Program at the University of Illinois Chicago. Other research shows that hot flashes interfere with attention and disrupt sleep. When these symptoms go on for a decade or longer, “it’s a chronic stressor to the brain,” Maki adds. If hot flashes are disrupting your life, she recommends talking with a health care practitioner trained in menopause care (find one at menopause.org).
As for me, I’ve been able to manage my new distractibility by staying well rested and practicing mindfulness, particularly when it comes to taking in new information. I have also accepted that my brain is going to need an assist every now and then. So I’ll keep writing “COUNT!!!” on my sheet music.