What is the link between memory loss and lack of sleep?

Find out why getting enough shuteye – but not too much – can help your memory

A good night’s sleep is important at any age – everyone recognises how terrible and ‘foggy-brained’ they feel if they’ve been tossing and turning, or had a late night.

But sleep is even more important as you get older, because there is a very clear link between having enough sleep and how well you can remember things. Although studies show that it can be harder to achieve the kind of deep, restorative sleep needed to consolidate memories as you age, there are still plenty of ways to help yourself get the right amount.

Here’s the science bit

When we sleep, slow brain waves are carried from the hippocampus, where memories are stored temporarily, to the pre-fontal cortex where they’ll then be stored in long-term memory. As you get older, the slow brain wave sleep is harder to come by, often because you have a harder time falling and staying asleep than you did when you were younger. This can eventually affect the brain so that memories get ‘stuck’ in the short-term memory part of your brain and not stored permanently.

So it’s important to get a decent night’s sleep as you get older – around 7-8 hours – to allow your brain more time to store memories.

But – there’s a fine balance…

Too much sleep…
A 2014 study from the University of Warwick looked at sleep habits and found that too much sleep could have an adverse effect on memory. The reason for this isn’t clear but it could be that long periods of sleep can actually reduce the quality of the sleep itself, because it disturbs the body clock. Doing this regularly could then eventually have a knock-on effect on your memory.

What can you do?

Scientists agree that the key is getting good quality sleep, and there are steps you can take to do this:

1. Check your health

Are your sleep problems related to any health issues you might be having? If something is waking you up repeatedly in the night, it could lead to poorer quality sleep. Talk to your doctor and he can see if this is the case, and treat the root cause so that hopefully, a restful night’s sleep can follow.

2. Switch off and unplug

We live in a digital age and electronic devices such as TVs, tablets and phones are everywhere. It’s been well-documented that these can affect the quality of your sleep because they not only distract you from going to bed and sleep, but they also emit a type of blue light that can disrupt your natural body clock. Wind down with a book or some music before bed for a more restful night’s sleep.

3. Get exercise

A brisk walk outdoors can be great for helping to encourage sleep. A Mayo Clinic study found exercise can help you fall asleep faster and deepen your sleep.

4. Ditch the lie-in

Yes, they’re relaxing, but in the long-term, lie-ins and sleeping late are actually quite disruptive for your body clock, so it’s best to get up as soon as you wake up, and avoid that temptation to go back to sleep for a few hours.

5. Limit caffeine

The last thing you need if you’re trying to get some good quality sleep is a case of the caffeine jitters. Limit caffeinated drinks such as coffee, tea and energy drinks to before lunch time so your body has time to get it out of its system before bedtime.