~ Short on Attention - Maybe You Haven't Noticed, But at Your Age It's Harder to Stay Focused

Albuquerque Journal, 06-26-06

Apopular e-mail that often circulates describes how distractions interrupt a middle-age man trying to work through his Saturday chores. He plans to mow the lawn, but remembers he needs to pay a bill. On his way to do that, he realizes he's thirsty and grabs a soda from the refrigerator. He walks toward his desk, but then gets distracted by something else. And so it goes.

At the end of the day the man hasn't finished any tasks and all he has to show for his efforts is a half-empty can of hot soda sitting on his desk.

Most baby boomers can relate to having trouble staying focused or concentrating. And recent research indicates there's a reason why. Studies show aging brains aren't as efficient as younger brains at screening out distractions.

Results of magnetic resonance imaging studies reported in a 2006 edition of The Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience show that starting in middle age lessthan-prime parts of the brain fire when trying to recall attention-related memory tasks.

The tasks required subjects to encode information from images into their memory and then recall details, such as whether letters were upper or lower case or if pictures or words were about animate beings or inanimate objects.

Although subjects ages 40 to 60 scored as well as their younger peers -- those 20 to 30 years old -- boomers used parts of the brain normally associated with resting or casual thinking rather than prefrontal lobe areas normally associated with tasks of concentration. The younger subjects had more activity in the prefrontal area.

Andrew Mayer, an Albuquerque-based neuropsychologist and research scientist at the MIND Institute on Yale NE, says paying attention or concentrating requires many parts of the brain.

As an example, he describes two ways people can pay attention when crossing a street. One is intentional and deliberate -- a person looks both ways. That attention process draws on many parts of the brain, he says.

However, loud tires squealing or the sound of metal crashing would provoke another experience. In that case, the primitive brain would engage and the body would prepare for a fight or flight response, he says.

"Attention changes as we age. It's harder and harder to multitask," he says, adding that how we focus our attention can cause difficulties at any age. Children with attention deficit disorder have trouble staying on task because they have less success at inhibiting external distractions, he says. Depressed people have trouble concentrating because attention is focused on inward rumination.

"People get stressed out and worried and it's hard for them to get out of their head and pay attention," he says.

"Some people think they have memory problems when they really have attention problems," he explains.

One goal of Mayer's research is to help people with difficulties - - like children with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder or people with schizophrenia who perceive internal voices as if they had an outside source, he says. "Attention is the base that underlies many disorders."

So what about the gardenvariety attention decline that begins to occur in middle age?

Mayer suggests slowing down and purposefully putting attention to priority items.

"Write things down," he says. "Focus on what you want to accomplish. Try not to do too many things at once. Make a word association for what you need to do. If you were trying to remember a list of words like pig, moon and car, you might think about a pig driving to the moon in a car."

Experts recommend a physical exam if concentration wanes unexpectedly for a period of time or declines rapidly. Vitamin deficiencies or malfunctioning hormones could be to blame, say reports from the University of Wisconsin.

And one local expert suggests having ears checked. Some middle- age folks have hearing loss in one ear and hearing sensitivity in the other, says Laurie Ross-Brennan, a speech-language pathologist who offers auditory integration training at her offices in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

The ears are one sense that allows information gathering, she explains. "We want to be able to process information, make sense of it and store it and then retrieve it at will."

But if the input is distorted because the ears are out of balance, it can be difficult for the auditory cortex to process the information. Boomers may have accommodated the imbalances before, but may find the distractions too great as they grow older.

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