The brain controls several aspects of cognition—learning, memory, problem-solving, decision making, planning and organising, among many more. Our cognitive abilities affect how well we fare at our everyday tasks, and determine our ability to function independently. As time goes by and we begin to age, we start to notice slight changes in our general physiology and health. It can start with frequent backaches, or being unable to run as fast as earlier. Similarly, there are many changes that occur in the brain that gradually decrease our cognitive abilities over time.
These changes affect one’s ability to focus, often making one more easily distracted than before. Hearing loss can often accompany ageing, making it harder for one to distinguish speech in a noisy setting. At this point, since hearing needs more concentration than usual, even the minutest decrease in the ability to focus can affect speech comprehension. Decreased brain activity also causes a reduction in focus and an increase in the ability to get distracted. A study at the University of Illinois looked into age-related loss of focus. It recorded the brain’s electrical responses in both young adults and older subjects (65-78 years) who were made to listen to distracting bursts of sound. In young subjects, the brain’s response to repeated, irrelevant tones was easily suppressed, whereas the responses to these distracting sounds were more persistent in older subjects.
The ability to perform executive tasks declines with age. Many learn to compensate for this by relying on certain daily habits and devoting extra effort to focus on newer details that they may be trying to learn. Even aches and pains can affect focus. Pain itself can be distracting and debilitating at times. To add to that, sometimes medication can cause the same effect.
These changes are most noticeable in one’s 50s and 60s. Although these can be concerning, most age-related cognitive issues don’t route back to Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative disorders. In fact, a change in one’s memory may simply be due to slower processing speed, and poor encoding and retrieval of new information, all resulting from lowered attention and attention spans. However, even though the brain may be slower to learn and recall new information, the ability to make sense of what one knows and form reasonable arguments/judgments remains intact.
So why do these changes occur?
As we age, there are physical and physiological changes in the brain that take place, such as:
- Certain portions of the brain actually shrink
- In certain regions of the brain, the communication and connections between neurons begin to reduce
- Blood flow to the brain may start decreasing
- Inflammation in the brain may start to occur more frequently
How to stay sharp through the years
Some simple ways to keep one’s focus as sharp as you age are:
- Getting ample sleep
- Staying physically active
- Limiting alcohol intake
- Having good social connections and interactions
- Challenging the brain regularly with puzzles, tests and games
- Avoiding smoking