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Updated 01 July 2014

10 reasons why you can't concentrate

Struggling to focus? Can’t remember where you put your keys? We look at 10 possible causes for mental fuzziness .

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Struggling to concentrate? Can’t remember where you put your keys? We look at 10 possible causes for mental fuzziness .

You are sure you put your phone in your handbag, but it turns up in the bathroom. Your boss gets into the lift when you are with a client and suddenly you go blank on your superior’s name. This is the fifth time you have read the same page of the report and you can’t get a grip on what it says.

Sudden moments of forgetfulness or lack of focus can be scary and unsettling, but they happen to all of us and are often just a sign that we are under stress and need to slow down a bit. As we get older, we tend to worry more about these mental hiccups, explains Professor Marilyn Lucas, chair of neuropsychology and cognitive neuropsychology at the University of the Witwatersrand.

“The young discount their forgetfulness and get on with life; the old dwell upon it, falling prey to the stereotype of ageing. In an ideal world in which we didn’t suffer from high levels of negative environmental stressors, there would be little deterioration in memory functions because of ageing.”

Here are some of the common causes for mental fuzziness and what to do about them.

Stress or anxiety  disrupts your concentration and can also lead to forgetfulness. Use relaxation methods and a healthy, active lifestyle to reduce the mental effects of stressful situations at home or work.

Depression

Lack of focus and concentration are among the more common symptoms of depression. Major depression can sometimes make it impossible to work or study effectively, and may require medical treatment.

Sleep deprivation

Disturbed sleep can lead to a lack of focus the following day. Prolonged sleep disturbances may require a doctor’s visit to uncover and treat any underlying cause.

Alcohol or drug abuse

Dependency on alcohol or recreational drugs may cause the brain to function less than optimally. Even prescribed medication may have this effect, so check with your doctor.

Hormonal changes

While the effect of pregnancy on the brain is a subject of debate among experts, many women report forgetfulness and focus problems in the later months.

Menapause

Menopause can likewise cause a temporary disruption to mental acuity, according to a recent study by the University of Rochester Medical Centre in America.

Stroke

A blood flow problem in the brain can cause changes in the organ, resulting in – sometimes severe – memory loss or failure to concentrate. Occupational therapy can help rebuild some mental skills.

Thyroid problems

An underactive thyroid can result in a change in brain cell activity. Thyroid treatment may include replacement medication.

Anaemia

Weakness and exhaustion can result from the lack of red blood cells, as oxygen is not transported properly in the body. Anaemia is successfully treated by lifestyle changes and nutritional supplements.

Head injury

 A knock on the head when playing sport can cause temporary confusion, while a more serious injury like a car accident could cause permanent damage, leading to concentration difficulties. In older adults, a fall is a common cause of injury and could result in confusion. Getting immediate treatment after an injury is vital to keep damage to a minimum.

Dementia

Diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease cause damage to the brain, and short-term memory loss is often one of the first signs. Various medications are used to change the progression of the disease and improve some of the effects.

“Memory loss should be seen as a cause for concern when it is interfering with social, work or home life, and there is a perceived deterioration from a previous level of functioning,” explains Professor Lucas. “It may also be of concern when others are commenting upon your forgetfulness or when it is accompanied by other symptoms, either mental or physical.”

How to stay mentally sharp “The current view is that keeping mentally active is the bes approach, coupled with physical exercise and, of course, a healthy diet,” says Professor Lucas. Here are her tips for staying in top mental shape:

  • Make an effort to include a new challenge in your mental activities, for example, learning a new language or how to play a musical instrument
  • Exercise should include cardiovascular training to keep the heart and lungs in good shape.
  • Tackling the puzzles found in the Saturday newspapers is good mental exercise.
  • Get the most out of your efforts by looking up those clues you couldn’t complete and try and understand where you went wrong.
  • Strategy computer games can be fun and challenging, and don’t have to involve guns and war if you don’t enjoy that aspect.
  • Make sure you make time for relaxation and get enough sleep.
  • Keep looking on the bright side of life, but if you are depressed or anxious, seek help.

  •  
  • Twenty years ago, an office worker would know dozens of phone numbers off by heart so that she could get in touch with important contacts within minutes.

    Now those numbers are programmed into her phone. Many of us don’t even know the phone numbers of our spouses or closest colleagues, relying as we do on the huge electronic storage capacity of the phones and other electronic devices we use every day.

    There are still some things that are rather important to remember; for example, the password for that gadget itself! Make a list of the numbers and details you use most often and make an effort to memorise them, so you don’t have to look them up every time. The following details are worth committing to memory:

    • ID number

    • Car registration

    • Bank account number

    • Electronic banking log-in

    • Tax number

    • Important computer passwords

    Research done at the University of California Irvine, in conjunction with the United States army, showed that cutting off workers from e-mail helped them concentrate better. So be sure to set aside periods in the day when your e-mail takes second place to other tasks or, better still, close it completely for an hour or two. 

    (Adele Hamilton, Health24, September 2012, originally published in Jump magazine)

    (Picture: Woman thinking from Shutterstock)

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