This is why older people have a harder time focusing under stress
06/15/2018 // Michelle Simmons // Views

Aging takes a toll on the brain, affecting memory and the ability to focus. A study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior found that older people find it difficult to focus because they have a weaker locus coeruleus. This particular brain network is responsible for controlling the ability to focus while under stress or emotional arousal, but it weakens as people age.

In the study, researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) in the U.S., Takachiho University in Japan, and University of Reading in the U.K. used brain scans and the rate of pupil dilation in 28 younger adults and 24 older adults in order to monitor their physiological arousal and locus coeruleus activity.

As the brains of the participants were scanned, the research team presented pairs of pictures of a building and an object. They manipulated the photographs to make the building appear clear and highlighted while the other object was made to appear faint, or vice versa. For every pair, the participants had to identify which picture was highlighted. To induce physiological arousal, some trials began with a tone warning that they might get an electric shock at the end of the trial, while others began with a tone signaling that there would be no shock. Greater pupil dilation and sweat were seen among the participants during trials when they expected a shock.

Older adults exhibited less activity in the frontoparietal network when expecting a shock. The network did not seem to efficiently respond to the signals sent by the locus coeruleus. When anticipating a shock, they exhibited greater activity in the parahippocampal place area, which activates when a person is viewing images of places, although it did not matter whether the image was highlighted or not. As a result, they displayed more activity linked with images — highlighted or not — during emotional arousal. This meant that they were easily distracted when stressed or emotionally aroused.


On the contrary, when anticipating a shock, younger adults had more activity in the place area when they saw the clear, highlighted image of the building. When they looked at a faint, non-highlighted image, brain activity in the place area diminished. Brain pathways that link the locus coeruleus, the place area, and the frontoparietal network remained uninterrupted. This allowed them to concentrate on more important things, even under arousal. These brain cortex regions help control focus and attention.

"Trying hard to complete a task increases emotional arousal, so when younger adults try hard, this should increase their ability to ignore distracting information," explained Mara Mather of USC and senior author of the study. "But for older adults, trying hard may make both what they are trying to focus on and other information stand out more."

Improve focus and concentration with attention training

Older adults can improve their ability to focus and concentrate with attention training, according to a study conducted by researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center.

In the study, the researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to record brain activity of participants aged between 65 and 75. During brain scans, participants accomplished a task that required them to search for target words or numbers while ignoring distracting sounds.

The researchers explained that the perception of information gathered by the eyes and ears change with age. In particular, older people mix information from the different senses more readily than younger people. As a result, they find it harder to block out distractions from what they see and hear while trying to focus on important information.

The scans showed brain activity in areas related to sight and sound. Follow-up brain scans revealed that those who received one-on-one training, the activity related to sight increased, while activity related to sound decreased compared to those who participated in a group brain exercise program. Moreover, the former's performance on the task improved. (Related: Ways to naturally improve your focus and concentration.)

The researchers concluded that attention training can help improve sensory processing by reducing older adults' susceptibility to distracting stimuli.

Read more news stories and studies on older people by going to

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