Friday, December 09, 2011

9 Reasons Why You Can't Concentrate

There are some surprising reasons your concentration is suffering.

There are some surprising reasons your concentration is suffering.

You walk into a restaurant to meet a friend and remember you were supposed to meet somewhere else. You leave your boss's office and, quick as that, forget the deadline she gave you for a new project. You had your keys in your hand, you were just holding them, and now they're gone -- again. What's going on? Here, nine possibilities for why your mind is wandering, and expert advice on how to get your concentration back.

1. Your numbers are low. Fuzzy mindedness could signal a vitamin or hormone deficiency, especially if you're also feeling unusually tired. For example, hypothyroidism -- too-low levels of thyroid hormone -- could be to blame, says Robert Orford, MD, consultant at the Mayo Clinic's Preventive Medicine Division in Scottsdale, AZ. "If there's a deficiency in thyroid hormone, metabolism slows, which reduces blood flow and cellular function in various parts of the brain," Dr. Orford says. B-12 deficiency and related anemia can have similar symptoms. Most people get plenty of B-12 in their diet, but an underlying condition such as Crohn's or celiac disease can prevent your body from absorbing it.

2. Your hormones have gone haywire. If you're nearing the end of your baby-making years, your inability to think clearly may signal the start of perimenopause -- that run-up to menopause when menstrual cycles become irregular and estrogen drops. Lack of concentration is a common complaint of perimenopausal women, says Kimberly Pearson, MD, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital's Center for Women's Mental Health. "They describe it as feeling fuzzy. That's the word a lot of women use. They feel like their vocabulary is diminishing, like they're not as sharp, not as crystal clear."

3. You've changed your meds. Anti-depressants can affect mood and concentration when you go on or off them. Antihistamines, sedatives, and anti-anxiety medications can cause lingering drowsiness, and antidepressants, beta blockers, and other medicines can cloud your mind. People who take statins sometimes notice a loss of mental clarity, says Dr. Orford. A daily dose of Coenzyme Q10 may counteract this effect. As for sleeping pills -- please.

4. You're quitting smoking. Yaaay! Two things to remember when you're tempted to cheat: 1. The more and longer you smoke, the more gray matter you lose. That's proven. The sooner you quit, the more you maintain. 2. Yes, you'll have trouble concentrating as you go through nicotine withdrawal, says Christopher Kahler, PhD, professor of behavioral and social sciences in the public health program at Brown University. It's a common complaint. But that passes, and the mental-health boost you get from quitting more than compensates: You did what? You quit smoking? Wow. "There's a lot of psychological benefit to it," he says.

5. Your diet has deteriorated. What you eat can have a major impact on mental clarity, says Laura Middleton, PhD, assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario. Bad eating habits increase your risks of obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol and related ills that can impair cognitive function, and being overweight or obese makes it harder to stay active, which is essential for brain health.

6. You think busy means fit. You may be incredibly busy, but if you're stuck at a desk or behind the wheel of a car most of the day, you won't be engaged in the kind of physical activity your mind needs. To stay sharp, you need to keep moving. Among other things, exercise increases production of a substance called brain-derived neurotrophic factor that helps the brain rewire itself and slows formation of plaques that accompany Alzheimer's disease. Start exercising, and you could feel sharper and more able to focus within a month. "It takes a few weeks to get into it," says Middleton, "but then positive changes happen quickly."

7. You have anxiety overload. Your boss gave you a bad evaluation and you know she has to cut staff, the IRS wants to audit your taxes, and your doctor wants to order another round of tests. And you wonder why you can't concentrate? Of course you can't. That's how the brain responds to real or imagined threat. We become hyper-alert to our surroundings ("Shhh! What's that?"), but ask us to focus on a task or follow a conversation, and forget it.

8. Your plate overfloweth. You work ten-hour days and stop to check on your widowed mom on your way home. You're chairing the church fundraiser again this year because you did such a great job last year and everybody begged you to do it again. You've got to get the invitations out for your daughter's birthday party, the dog needs to go to the groomer, you need a haircut, and your in-laws are arriving next weekend for their annual visit. Even if you're not super-worried about any of these things, having too much on your to-do list could mean you're setting yourself up for distractions and forgetfulness. "It happens to men and women," says Dr. Orford. "They have so much going on they can't keep up. Their minds get overloaded."

9. It's just the way you're wired. If a new job or relationship is making your problems with focus, organization, time-management and follow-through newly apparent to others, but the truth is they're not at all new to you -- you've been struggling with them all your life -- you could have undiagnosed Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). You don't have to be hyper to be a candidate, says J. Russell Ramsay, PhD, co-director and co-founder of the Adult ADHD Treatment and Research Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Symptoms can take many forms, including impatience, distractibility, forgetfulness, impulsiveness, and having trouble finishing tasks.

--By Gini Kopecky Wallace, Prevention


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