In an article published by the Harvard Medical School, Dr. Kirk Daffner, Director for Brain/Mind Medicine at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, states that people have trouble filtering out information that is irrelevant to the task at hand as they age. In addition, Dr. Daffner says that the slowing of mental processes is made worse by things such as inflammation, high blood pressure, and the build-up of abnormal proteins that are thought to be toxic to the brain.
Many adults begin to notice difficulty concentrating and/or have memory issues in their 50s and 60s, and up to two-thirds of Americans experience some level of cognitive decline by age 70. This is, in part, due to the fact that the specific parts of the brain that are involved in learning and complex mental activities are naturally shrinking and losing effectiveness. While some physiological changes are inevitable, many issues with concentration are not related to aging and can, in fact, be improved by making some lifestyle changes.
Mindfulness. The core tenet of mindfulness is about focusing one’s attention on the present moment. Research has shown that regular practice of mindfulness techniques allows the brain to “re-wire” and improves everyday concentration. A simple technique is to sit quietly with your eyes closed and focus on your breathing and the sounds around you. Allow distracting thoughts to float away. Just be in the present without worrying about past or future events. Begin with several minutes per day and work up to one or two sessions of twenty minutes daily.
Cognitive Training. Cognitive training is just a fancy way of saying you need to exercise your brain. While Sudoku and crossword puzzles are better than nothing, try computerized cognitive training games online that are specifically designed to improve reaction time and attention. Better yet, learn an entirely new skill that challenges your brain, such as a new language.
Sleep. Sleep is not a passive activity. In addition to getting rest, our bodies produce hormones that are essential for repair. Our brains are also cleaned of toxins that naturally build up over the course of the day. Lack of quality sleep can lead to abnormally high levels of a protein called beta-amyloid, which can lead to a build-up of plaque in the brain that has been linked to dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Diet. Diets that are high in fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those with lots of antioxidants, have been shown to reduce inflammation. Foods such as berries and non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens should be staples. Also, aim to eat healthy fats from foods such as avocados and nuts. Oily fish such as salmon is also great for boosting your brain. Think Mediterranean diet.
Exercise. Movement is not only for our bones and muscles but also for our minds. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that adults get 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise and at least two strength training sessions per week. In addition to the minutes, the key is the intensity. A simple way of defining moderate intensity is an activity such as walking or biking where you are breathing heavily, but can still talk. If you can sing (how well it doesn’t matter), you aren’t working hard enough.