Ever meet someone and forget his or her name minutes later? Or maybe you attended a lecture and couldn’t remember key details by the time you got home.
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Nearly everyone experiences these problems from time to time. You might worry that they’re a sign your memory is fading. Instead, you might not have concentrated well enough to store the information.
“For the majority of people, it’s not a memory problem per se, but it’s more of a concentration or organizational problem where they’re not getting the information initially or they’re not processing it correctly in the first place,” says Aaron Bonner-Jackson, PhD, a neuropsychologist with Cleveland Clinic’s Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health. “They say they have a memory problem when in fact trouble with concentration, focus or organization is the underlying issue.”
However, identifying factors that steal your focus and developing skills to improve your concentration potentially can pay big dividends for your memory.
Why can’t you concentrate?
Attention is an essential, first ingredient for good memory. After all, if you can’t concentrate on new information or stimuli you receive, you’ll be unable to process and store it in your memory.
Your ability to concentrate can vary greatly, and like everyone, there will be times when you just can’t find your focus. But there are certain factors that contribute to this process. For example, by giving your attention to multiple tasks instead of one, you might limit your ability to retain the information you need most.
If you’re trying to do two or three things at once and you’re not really focusing on any of them very well, you really won’t process the information well enough to store it, so when you go to retrieve it, it’s gone.
A number of other factors can adversely affect your ability to concentrate, including inadequate sleep, a poor diet, dehydration, hunger and physical inactivity. Certain medications, such as sedating antihistamines, certain overactive bladder drugs, painkillers and others, have been associated with impairments in concentration and memory. Moreover, poor concentration is a hallmark sign of attention-deficit disorder, is a common feature of mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and it may occur with medical problems like diabetes, chronic pain and thyroid dysfunction.
“We know that with hypothyroidism, for example, people tend to feel sluggish and can’t pay attention as well,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson explains. “There are a variety of medical issues that could potentially affect your concentration.”
How to regain your focus
So, how do you improve your concentration? One way is by changing your behavior and setting yourself up so that you can process information well. Along those lines, concentrate on one task at a time, and devote your full attention to it. If necessary, take frequent breaks. “You don’t want to tax yourself so much that you start to lose focus and make mistakes,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson adds.
Another is by modifying your environment to minimize distractions that erode your attention. So, when you really need to focus on something, turn off the television, computer and cellphone, and create a calm, quiet environment. “Every time you switch tasks, whether intentionally or because of a distraction, there’s a cost,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson says. “Every time you do that, you’re whittling away at your attentional store, so the more you can focus on one thing, the better.”
Furthermore, address any medications or medical conditions that could be sapping your concentration. And consider meeting with a practitioner of cognitive rehabilitation therapy, Dr. Bonner-Jackson advises. Among other things, this treatment can train you in ways to boost attention and benefit your memory, such as visualizing the information you hope to retain.
“Visualization can be a really powerful tool, because the more ways you can process information, the more likely you are to remember it,” he adds. “You can go back in your mind later on and actually look through your memory for it.
“Through certain habits, you can improve your concentration,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson continues. “The thought is that if you can change the way you process information, that can have downstream benefits for your memory.”
Easy tips for better concentration + memory
Here, Dr. Bonner-Jackson offers 12 ways you can boost your concentration and manage factors that affect it to help you store and retrieve information more effectively:
- Get plenty of sleep. Report any sleep disorders, such as insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea, to your physician.
- Tell your doctor about feelings of stress, anxiety or depression. Address these and other medical conditions that can impair your concentration and memory.
- Review your medications with your physician to determine if any might contribute to your concentration or memory problems.
- Adhere to a heart-healthy lifestyle, including regular physical activity and a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein sources and low in saturated fat, added sugars and processed foods. “We think that things that are good for the heart and blood vessels tend to be better for cognition and the brain,” Dr. Bonner-Jackson says.
- Limit your intake of caffeine. Although moderate caffeine intake can improve your focus in the short term, consuming too much can have the opposite effect.
- Correct any vision or hearing problems, which can interfere with your ability to obtain and process new information.
- Avoid multitasking as much as possible, especially if one task requires particular focus or concentration.
- Engage multiple senses as you learn new information. Visualize and verbalize whatever information or stimuli you are receiving.
- Break large pieces of information into smaller chunks. For instance, dividing a 10-digit phone number into the three-digit area code, three-digit prefix, and the remaining four digits may help you remember the number more easily.
- Use associations to your advantage. You might use word associations, or try to relate new information to something that’s already in your memory.
- Repeat new information — such as a person’s name, instructions or a grocery list — over and over, and rehearse it later in the day and again periodically. Reread a particular paragraph or sentence so you remember it.
- Improve your environment. Shut off the television and other electronic devices, and remove sources of noise and other distractions.
This article originally appeared in Cleveland Clinic Men’s Health Advisor.