Recent Blog Articles
Can long COVID affect the gut?
When replenishing fluids, does milk beat water?
Safe, joyful movement for people of all weights
Slowing down racing thoughts
Are women turning to cannabis for menopause symptom relief?
3 ways to create community and counter loneliness
Helping children make friends: What parents can do
Can electrical brain stimulation boost attention, memory, and more?
Palliative care frightens some people: Here’s how it helps
Parents don't always realize that their teen is suicidal
How aging affects focus
Just as you may not run as fast or jump as high as you did as a teenager,your brain’s cognitive power—that is, your ability to learn, remember, and solve problems—slows down with age. You may find it harder to summon once familiar facts or divide your attention among two or more activities or sources of information. These changes affect your ability to focus, so you may find yourself getting more easily distracted than you were when you were younger.
Hearing loss that often accompanies aging makes it more difficult to distinguish speech in a noisy environment. Because hearing then requires more concentration than usual, even mild loss of the ability to focus can affect speech comprehension.
Most people start to notice changes as they enter their 50s and 60s. Although these changes can cause consternation, most age-related memory and thinking problems don’t stem from an underlying brain disease such as Alzheimer’s disease. Instead, what appears to be a memory problem may simply reflect a slower processing speed and poor encoding and retrieval of new memories as a result of diminished attention. However, even though your brain may be slower to learn and recall new information, your ability to make sense of what you know and to form reasonable arguments and judgments remains intact.
Many of these limitations are reversible and related to poor sleep, but structural changes that take place in your brain as you age can explain some of these developments, too. Brain regions involved with memory processing, such as the hippocampus and especially the frontal lobes, undergo anatomical and neurochemical changes over time.
The result is that as you age, it takes longer to absorb, process, and remember new information. The natural loss of receptors and neurons that occurs with aging may also make it harder to concentrate. Therefore, you not only learn information more slowly, but you also may have more trouble recalling it because you didn’t fully learn it in the first place. With slower processing, facts held in working memory may dissipate before you have had a chance to solve a problem.
In addition, the ability to perform tasks that involve executive function declines with age. Many people learn to compensate for these changes by relying on habit most of the time and devoting extra effort to focus on new information they are trying to learn.
Even the aches and pains of getting older can affect focus. Pain itself is distracting, and some of the medications used to treat it also can affect concentration.
Image: Johnny Grieg/Getty Images
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
You might also be interested in…
Improving Concentration and Focus
This instructive guide from Harvard Medical School offers practical, proven, commonsense strategies to recapture your concentration and maintain your brain’s alertness and fitness. Improving Concentration and Focus addresses four focus-hindering factors you can control. You’ll discover why multi-tasking can actually erode memory skills and learn ways to give your brain essential “downtime.” You’ll also learn what you can do to improve cognitive function and speed.
Free Healthbeat Signup
Get the latest in health news delivered to your inbox!