Douglas Hyde Powell, Ed.D., ABPP

Douglas Hyde Powell Ed.D., A.B.P.P.

The Aging Intellect

Improve Concentration by Minimizing Distractibility

Effective thinking depends on suppressing distracting thoughts and feelings

Posted May 04, 2011

In our research with optimally aging older adults we were struck by how often they mentioned difficulty with concentration. Three out of four reported problems with focusing or maintaining attention.

             Lauren (84) started telling friends an amusing story about her granddaughter. Half way through she thought of something else to add to the story. But when Lauren inserted the new thought, she lost her way and couldn't remember what she was talking about.

             Will (81) is standing in the kitchen holding the freezer door open. He can't remember why. This is the third time in the last couple of months something like this has happened.

             The firm where Annie (67) works reassigned parking spaces. She now must park her car on the left hand side of the building and not the right side where she had previously parked.  When she went to her car after work on Wednesday there was a nasty note glued to her windshield saying  she had parked in someone else's space again. Annie realized she had left her car in her old parking spot for three straight days.

             In the late afternoon on the long drive back home from Florida Peter (79) got lost following a detour off the interstate. When he stopped at a gas station to ask for help Peter couldn't focus his attention to memorize the new directions the first two times the clerk told him. "Things don't lock in automatically the way they used to," says Peter."

 Most of these elders believed their symptoms were caused by age-related memory loss. Neuroscientists in Europe and North America would disagree. They found that the attention of older people was more often disrupted than younger adults-even though they had similar scores on memory tests. They believe that some of the memory problems of elders are due to by a growing inability to suppress distractions, which makes it difficult to memorize new information and retrieve it.

 Certain situations put older people at greater risk for being distracted. Here are four reasons seniors lose their mental focus:

            (1) Failure to restrain competing thoughts-Lauren was sidetracked when a funny thing her granddaughter said popped into her head while telling the story, and once she was absorbed in that anecdote Lauren couldn't recover the main thread. On the way to the kitchen to get some ice cream Will started thinking about his favorite baseball team's poor start to the season and that thought blotted out the reason for the trip to the freezer.

            (2) Failure to reprogram the "automatic pilot," deleting old habitual responses and substituting new ones-e.g., Annie's continuing to park in her car in the old space.

            (3) Stress makes it difficult to pay attention to new information and memorize it. Peter couldn't take in the correct directions back to the interstate because he was upset about getting lost, which made it hard for him to focus on what he was being told.            

            (4) Avoid taxing attention and memory at bottom of your diurnal (day-night) cycle. The reason Peter became lost in the first place was because the long drive required only one simple turn at Route 26 to Columbia. S.C. So he didn't bother to write it down. At  about 4:30 PM, when Peter was at the lowest point of his diurnal cycle, and his vulnerability to distracting thoughts was at the highest,  a highway sign flashed into his view: "Route 21 to Columbia, 1 mile." Columbia was his destination all right, but he didn't think Route 21 looked correct. Suddenly he wasn't certain it was Route 26 either. Since he had less than minute to decide, Peter took the wrong road and ran into the detour.

 What advice is there for those of you who ask what you can do to minimize distractibility? Here are four evidence-based strategies. First, get right to the point. If you are telling a story, keep it short and ignore attractive side roads.  Next, one thing at a time.  On the way to the freezer for ice cream, keep your mind on that task and block out other interesting thoughts. Third, if you must learn new routines-park in a different space, drive an unfamiliar rental car, or operate a new software program, set aside time to learn the new procedures, and to let go of the old habits. Finally, identify those conditions when you are the most vulnerable having your concentration disrupted. Avoid being dependent on your attention and memory to quickly solve a problem in the late afternoon or when you are feeling stressed. While not all elders are less alert in the PM, it is a good bet that most are sharper in the morning. And recognize that you will have to work harder to push distracting thoughts out of your mind when you are feeling tense. It takes surprisingly little stress to interfere with your concentration.

 Effective thinking depends on the ability to suppress disruptive thoughts, feelings and old habits.  Blocking out these distractions is a keystone of independent living.



About the Author

Douglas Hyde Powell, Ed.D., ABPP

Douglas Hyde Powell, Ed.D., A.B.P.P., is a Clinical Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, and a Consultant in Psychology at McLean Hospital.

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