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.
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.