Likely Cause of Memory Impairment: Lack of Sleep?

Changes to our sleep patterns naturally occur with aging, but scientists are finding links between changes to sleep and senior cognitive decline, dementia and memory impairment.

In recent years, scientists have begun uncovering the brain mechanisms behind the specific type of memory impairment that naturally occurs with aging, and one of the findings that keeps popping up is the relationship between brain deterioration, memory loss and sleep.

Sleep and Senior Memory Impairment

One of the exciting recent discoveries scientists have made in the area of aging is the link between poor sleep and senior memory impairment in the aging brain. Neuroscientists at the University of California, Berkeley, reported their findings in a study that compared memory retention in groups of both older and younger adults.

Released in Nature Neuroscience, the study found that age-related deterioration of the prefrontal cortex region of the brain was associated with a failure to achieve the kind of deep, slow-wave sleep that helps the brain consolidate memories and information in seniors.

“When we are young, we have deep sleep that helps the brain store and retain new facts and information,” explained Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study, in a news release. “But as we get older, the quality of our sleep deteriorates and prevents those memories from being saved by the brain at night.”

Though it may seem there’s nothing that we can do about the inevitable changes that happen in our brains as we age, there is a hopeful angle to the outcome of this study. The researchers’ findings may help future studies pinpoint new treatment angles for age-related memory impairment. In fact, scientists are already designing studies to determine whether enhancing sleep in older adults can improve their overnight memory retention.


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What Adds to My Dementia Risk?

There is also another, more serious reason to tackle the problem of poor sleep in seniors: the risk of developing dementia or memory impairment later in life. The National Institutes of Health shares that not only do people get less deep sleep as they get older, they are also more likely to experience disruptions to their sleep schedule, suffer from insomnia or sleep apnea, or develop movement disorders like restless legs syndrome that keep them from getting a good night’s sleep. Scientists are now finding that some of these sleep disruptions are associated with impaired cognition and, in some cases, the later onset of dementia.

Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, has co-authored numerous studies looking at the relationship between cognition and sleep in older adults. One of those studies found that older women with sleep-disordered breathing — seen in conditions such as sleep apnea — had an increased risk of developing cognitive impairment five years later.

In another study, older men who experienced incidents of waking up at night after initially going to sleep showed poorer cognition than those with normal sleep patterns. In many of these cases, treating the causes of sleep problems like apnea may be able to reduce the risk of dementia later on.

In the end, however, it’s important to remember that there is not a simple cause-and-effect relationship between dementia risk, memory loss or sleep. The interactions between cognitive impairment and sleep are complex, and just as there are many factors that cause changes in sleep as our loved ones get older, there are also numerous causes for age-related mental decline.

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