If you’ve ever had a night or two of poor sleep, you know how it goes: You slog through the next day feeling a little out of it and unable to concentrate or remember things. Sleep deprivation is known to impact the brain in multiple ways, from raising stress levels and causing mood swings to making it harder to focus and process new information. Beyond these effects, however, researchers have discovered that sleep deprivation might be causing problems with memory.
Among the many ongoing health issues sleep deprivation might play a role in, one major problem is memory loss. Ongoing research has begun to show the links between poor sleep and memory and how these things can affect you as you age.
Sleep-related causes of memory loss
It’s now widely believed that there is a strong link between sleep deprivation—whether acute or chronic—and memory loss.
We experience this on occasion after even just one night of poor sleep. If you didn’t sleep enough or were woken up throughout the night, you might find it hard to recall simple things like names, items on your to-do list or where you placed your keys. This is largely because sleep helps the brain form new neural pathways that make it easier for us to focus, learn new information and recall older information. This kind of brain fog is usually rectified after a solid night’s sleep.
Unfortunately, chronic sleep deprivation or poor sleep might have more long-term effects. Sleep issues have been linked to memory loss and memory disorders like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Experts are not 100 percent sure of the exact reasons behind this link, but research has given light to a few possibilities.
For one, sleep deprivation is linked to physiological problems like diabetes and high blood pressure, both of which can constrict the blood vessels. If this happens, less blood might flow to the brain, reducing the nutrients and oxygen it needs to keep your brain cells in good shape.
Additionally, sleep deprivation might cause a buildup of protein deposits called beta amyloids. An accumulation of these deposits has been linked to worsening memory and a higher risk of dementia in older adults.
Experts believe that the brain “cleans out” these beta amyloid deposits while you sleep, helping to minimize the buildup over time. If you’re not sleeping well, these byproducts may continue to accumulate. Research has even suggested that beta amyloids might be causing sleep disruption in some cases, so more research is needed to determine potential treatments.
Finally, more recent research has discovered a strong link between deep sleep and memory. While you sleep, the brain produces powerful brain waves that aid in memory storage. Memories are transferred from the hippocampus (where short-term memory is stored) to the prefrontal cortex (where memories are stored for the long term). This process typically happens during deep sleep. It’s believed that poor sleep can interrupt this process, causing memories to be stuck in the hippocampus and eventually lost.
Seniors might be at a higher risk of developing memory problems as a result of this. Seniors tend to spend less time in deep sleep at night and might have more sleeping troubles than young people. This may be because of deterioration of the middle frontal lobe, which is where those important deep-sleep brain waves come from. Less deep sleep might result in more memory storage dysfunction, making it harder for seniors to recall important things.
Taking care of your brain
Based on the research establishing links between memory loss and poor sleep, experts think that prioritizing sleep hygiene in your middle age may reduce your risk for developing memory problems later. There are two major ways to accomplish this.
Develop good sleep hygiene
First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure you develop good sleeping habits and get enough quality sleep. Work on developing a consistent sleep schedule that helps you log seven to eight hours a night.
If you struggle with insomnia, eliminate distractions in your sleeping environment (such as noise and light), cut down on caffeine consumption and reduce blue light exposure. Winding down at the end of the day or even taking a melatonin supplement might help you fall asleep more easily.
Bolster brain health
Because research suggests that some things like brain deterioration might actually cause sleep problems, you’ll also want to take good care of your brain health as you age. Reduce stress, exercise more and live a healthy lifestyle to keep your body and brain in great shape.
Certain foods are also known to be great for brain health, including nuts and seeds, fatty fish, leafy greens and antioxidant-rich fruits.
Healthy sleep, happy mind
Taking care of your sleep in the now has the potential to pave the way for a much happier and healthier lifestyle later in life. If you want the best chance at keeping your memory strong, make sure you get some Zs!