Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. The brain has wonderful plasticity, and you can help it adjust and refocus by adopting a few simple, healthy habits.
Couch potatos who started doing 30 to 40 minutes of aerobic exercise (think treadmills and stationary bikes) four times a week improved their executive function, a 2019 Columbia University Study found. Volunteers in their 40s, 50s and 60s were the ones who benefited the most. And the scans showed that the cortical thickness in the athletes’ brains had actually increased after six months. “It convinced me to fit exercise into my schedule,” says lead researcher Yaakov Stern, chief of cognitive neuroscience in Columbia’s Department of Neurology.
Insomniacs find it harder to ignore distractions than normal sleepers, study finds 2019 Australian study, and the worse your sleep, the worse your ability to concentrate. According another studio of more than 5,000 participants over five years, those who started getting less than six to eight hours of sleep a night demonstrated a drop in thinking skills equivalent to four to seven years of aging, compared to study subjects who were still getting their z’s To help protect your brain from such a slowdown, be sure to go to bed on time and get treatment for any sleep disorders that may arise, such as obstructive sleep apnea.
Refocus with meditation
Chronic stress can reduce connections between brain cells and even reduce the size of the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved with memory. The antidote? Daily mindfulness meditation, says Julia Basso, assistant professor in the Department of Human Nutrition, Food, and Exercise and director of the Embodied Brain Lab at Virginia Tech. In her study 2018, 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, tech-rich, distraction-laden existence,” says Maura Thomas, a productivity expert based in Austin, Texas, and author of Care management: how to achieve success and increase productivity every day. Juggling two or more activities that require concentration doesn’t save time, especially for a middle-aged brain, Zanto says.
“Task switching comes at a cost,” he says. “If your phone rings or your email rings, it interrupts your train of thought.” Getting back to normal takes a lot longer than if you hadn’t been interrupted. Thomas suggests turning off notifications on his devices for scheduled periods of time during the workday so he can focus. Let people know in advance. “What is the boss going to say? He doesn’t concentrate; Don’t you finish your work? Thomas asks. Time-management strategies like the Pomodoro Technique might also help: Set a 25-minute timer and commit to focusing on a single task until it goes off. Then take a five-minute break and start over.
Manage menopausal symptoms
Hot flashes caused by hormonal changes can interfere with the brain’s ability to encode memories, according to studies by Pauline Maki, MD, 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 continue for a decade or more, “it’s a chronic stressor on the brain,” adds Maki. If hot flashes are disrupting your life, she recommends talking to a health professional trained in menopause care (find one at menopause.org).
As for me, I have been able to handle my new distraction by getting plenty of rest and practicing mindfulness, particularly when it comes to taking in new information. I have also accepted that my brain is going to need help from time to time. So I will keep writing “ACCOUNT!!!” in my sheet music