When it comes to memory problems, we tend to focus on the challenges of recalling information. But in many cases, the issue isn’t an inability to reach back for stored memories. The problem is that the information was never really learned in the first place.
Memory starts with learning, which requires concentration. Your ability to pay attention will directly affect how well or how poorly you grasp and store new information.
“Attention can impact our memory if our attention resources are strained when learning new information or carrying out an activity, such as remembering an address or following a cooking recipe,” explains clinical neuropsychologist Yakeel T. Quiroz, PhD, director of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Multicultural Alzheimer’s Prevention Program. “Sometimes, not being able to ‘remember’ details of a conversation or ‘forgetting’ a step when cooking may trigger memory concerns, but a closer look may reveal concentration difficulties that interfere with our ability to learn and recall new information. Therefore, implementing strategies to boost our attention can be beneficial to improve our memory and, in turn, our ability to carry out our daily tasks.”
Your ability to concentrate varies from day to day and even hour to hour. Your health, lifestyle, environment, and what else is going on in your mind at any given moment all can affect your attention level. It’s important to accept that there are simply times when you’re more “dialed in” and times when distractions have stolen some of your concentration power. This is true for everyone.
“Attention helps us navigate demands to function in our daily activities, such as when to fetch water when thirsty or where to turn when driving,” says Clara Vila-Castelar, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in neuropsychology at MGH. “However, our resources to navigate these demands are limited, and thus vulnerable to both internal factors, such as energy level or emotional state, and external factors, including background noise or other distractors.”
Among the many factors that can interfere with concentration are:
- Insufficient sleep
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Poor diet
- Certain medications
- Mood disorders
- Noisy environment
Pay Attention to Lifestyle
You know that a healthy, active lifestyle is good for the heart, lungs, muscles, and overall health. So it’s no surprise that nutrition, plenty of rest, and regular exercise affect the powers of concentration.
“For instance, how many hours we sleep and the quality of our sleep can impact our energy level, and being fatigued may impede our ability to focus,” Dr. Quiroz says. “Similarly, regular exercise and a balanced diet can improve our cognition. Research shows that general health habits that help us prevent cardiovascular risk factors also promote healthy cognition. As it is usually said, everything that is good for your heart is also good for your brain.”
She notes that exercise has been proven to boost memory, attention and working memory, as well as other cognitive functions needed to plan, organize information, and remember details.
“Importantly, lifestyle factors are so-called ‘modifiable,’ meaning that we may have the ability to change them,” Dr. Vila-Castelar adds. “For example, we can target our sleep habits, or aim to exercise regularly, or tweak our diets. Many lifestyle factors are interconnected, meaning that improving one may have a positive effect in others. For example, regular physical activity improves sleep.”
Medications and Mood
While striving for a healthier lifestyle is always a good idea, you may have medical challenges that affect concentration and other brain functions. And in some cases, it’s the medication you take, rather than the condition itself, that interferes with attention.
“For example, anticholinergic drugs, often used to treat incontinence, may negatively impact attention,” Dr. Quiroz says. “It is important to monitor changes in cognitive ability, particularly when initiating a new treatment, or modifying dosages. If cognitive concerns arise, it is recommended to consult with health-care providers to evaluate these changes and determine the best approach.”
Mood disorders also can significantly affect our ability to engage and focus through a variety of mechanisms. “Anxiety disorders are characterized by pervasive and interfering thoughts that may have diverse physical and psychological effects,” Dr. Vila-Castelar says. “Similarly, common symptoms of depression may affect not only how we feel, but also how we think and how we behave. While symptoms may vary among disorders and individuals, treatment of mood symptoms is important to address attention and other cognitive difficulties.”
Having trouble concentrating is actually a common sign of anxiety and depression, though don’t assume that being distracted is a sure sign of a mood disorder. Likewise, if you notice signs of a mood disorder, tell your doctor or seek out a mental health professional.
Other signs of anxiety include:
- Excessive worry
- Racing or unwanted thoughts
- Heart palpitations
Depression symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness and hopelessness
- Withdrawal from friends, family and activities you once enjoyed
- Mood changes
- Low energy
- Changes in sleeping and eating habits
- Reckless thoughts and behaviors
If you’re dealing with symptoms of chronic pain or a physical condition that takes your focus away from other things, work with your doctor to manage your symptoms. Maybe physical therapy will help. Don’t assume that aches, pains and other factors can’t be reduced or controlled.
Learning When It’s Loud
While health and lifestyle can affect concentration in positive and negative ways, so too can your environment. A calm, quiet setting with few distractions is obviously better for learning than an environment that makes you tense and distracted.
As Dr. Quiroz notes, your attention resources are limited. That means the more you have demands on your attention in a particular environment, the less able you are to give any one demand its proper focus.
“As the information load and number of distractors increase, such as when ordering from a large menu in a loud and busy restaurant, greater demands are placed on an individual to discern important information from distractors to successfully manage the situation,” she says. “If attention is compromised, as when we are tired or preoccupied with other thoughts, situations that may require multitasking become even more challenging.”
In other words, when trying to learn new information, try to do so in a place with less noise and fewer distractions.