Ever feel like your focus is slipping away? Perhaps you can’t function without a calendar when you used to know everyone’s birthday by heart? Or you left your sunglasses on the restaurant table again? Or maybe you can’t sit through a mere hour of work without your brain getting foggy?
Whatever changes to your brain you’re noticing, there’s a good chance they’re real.
“Just as you may not run as fast or jump as high as you did as a teenager, your brain’s cognitive power—that is, your ability to learn, remember, and solve problems—slows down with age,” writes the team at Harvard Health Publishing. “You may find it harder to summon once familiar facts or divide your attention among two or more activities or sources of information. These changes affect your ability to focus, so you may find yourself getting more easily distracted than you were when you were younger.”
While it’s almost certain that aging affects focus, how aging affects focus is a more complicated matter. To get to the bottom of your questions about age and attention, we reached out to our team of experts. Here’s what they said:
It's possible that in some ways, our brains become less efficient as we age. They require longer periods of rest in order to be able to work again. This is largely due to the fact that we don't produce neurotrophins as quickly and easily as we get older, and these neurotransmitters play a huge role in how well we focus and remember things, like auditory stimuli (i.e., conversations).
The best and most effective way for aging adults to make sure they stay on top of their game is by taking care of themselves mentally and physically, because one affects the other almost immeasurably. For example, stress increases cortisol production, which inhibits the production of neurotrophic factors (which keep us feeling young). So worry less, and focus more!
Aditya Sneh, Founder, healjunkies
As we age, our hormones decline, and one of the things that is affected by declining hormones is mental clarity and focus, inducing the infamous "brain fog." Thyroid is an important hormone that crosses the blood/brain barrier to help with a person's ability to focus. Our thyroid function declines as we age. Things like diet, underlying inflammation, and stress (physical/emotional) can inhibit our absorption of it, affecting our cortisol levels and reducing uptake by the thyroid receptors.
Dr. Jill Stocker, D.O., P.E., Age Management/Hormone Optimization Expert
Complex attentional tasks
Aging affects focus when it comes to a person’s ability to perform complex attentional tasks effectively.
This is most evident in two scenarios:
1. When focusing on something specific, without allowing additional environmental stimuli to interfere
2. When doing two things at once, also known as “multitasking.”
Many people are able to retain attentiveness on simple tasks as they age (like memorizing something short and specific), but it becomes less common as the tasks become more complex, such as reading an article in a room where people are conversing or having a thoughtful conversation while safely driving a car.
What are possibly the most evident causes of cognitive decline are the widespread structural changes that a brain naturally experiences as it ages. Cognitive decline in humans has more to do with “when” than “if.” The underlying causes of aging, itself, are still unclear to scientists, and the brain is no exception.
However, there are many things associated with cognitive decline that we are aware of. The brain experiences numerous physical changes as it ages, with shrinkage of the hippocampus and frontal lobe, a loss of synapses (where neurons meet to share information), and an increased presence of infarction (the death of tissue due to a lack of blood supply) to name a few.
These changes are more or less inevitable aspects of aging, though we do know that a healthy lifestyle, or lack of it, can play a role. Different aspects of a person’s life contribute to the rate of decreased cognitive performance they experience, which includes the loss of the ability to focus. These are:
- Exposure to pollution
- Head and brain trauma
- Poor lifestyle, diet, and fitness.
Improvements in these areas currently remain the most viable solutions to addressing cognitive decline, over the long term.
Ben Spielberg, Founding Neuroscientist, TMS & Brain Health5
The locus coeruleus connection
I think we all notice that it's harder to concentrate as we age. There are many reasons for this. However, according to one study, the locus coeruleus – the part of our brain network that controls our ability to focus – weakens as we get older. Researchers found that these changes can occur as early as age 30.
Hormone fluctuations can make it hard to focus as we age. For example, in the study mentioned above, the study authors noted that the locus coeruleus controls the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that influences attention, memory, and alertness. Hormone production also tends to decrease as we age, decreasing concentration.
Heather Hanks, MS, Medical Advisor and Nutritionist, Medical Solutions BCN
Loss of cognitive power
Most people start experiencing loss of the brain's cognitive power (ability to learn, remember, and solve problems) in their 50's and 60's.
However, this condition is not associated with the underlying brain's diseases, but the inability to process information faster and poor encoding and retrieval of new memories due to diminished attention.
Aging also leads to hearing loss, which can affect one's ability to concentrate, leading to an inability to focus.
Daniel Boyer M.D., Farr Institute
The impact of poor sleep
Aging can negatively impact sleep quality, and lack of sleep can negatively impact aging and focus, creating a vicious cycle. The less sleep you get, the quicker your body can age, and the less focused you’ll be. Without maintenance, the brain will slowly start to lose the ability to focus after many periods of lack of sleep.
Michael Fischer, Founder, Elitehrt
Fortunately, there are all-natural ways to boost your focus that include adaptogens, like bacopa, rhodiola, and lion’s mane mushroom. We’ve infused our Focus Fuel shot with these brain-boosting adaptogens for the perfect afternoon replacement for your second cup of coffee. Made with organic prickly pear, pineapple, lemon, and ginger juices, this is a bright new addition to your busy day. Show your mind some love with KOR!