Sleep deprivation is connected with brain degeneration and memory loss in older adults, according to a new study by University of California, Berkeley scientists. It boils down to a difference in the quality of sleep we get as we grow older, said UC Berkeley sleep researcher Matthew Walker in a statement.
“When we are young, we have deep sleep that helps the brain store and retain new facts and information,” Walker said. “But as we get older, the quality of our sleep deteriorates and prevents those memories from being saved by the brain at night.”
This bore out in the study that UC Berkeley conducted on 33 healthy adults without memory problems (18 participants were mostly in their 20s and 15 were in their 60s and 70s). The group learned 120 word pairs and were asked to recall them for researchers 10 minutes later, then again in the morning after a night’s rest. Brain activity scans of the participants found that the older adults’ quality of sleep was 75 percent lower than the younger group, and that their memory of the word pairs was 55 percent worse the next day.
During deep sleep, the brain generates slow brain waves that carry our memories of the day from the hippocampus, where memories are stored temporarily, to the prefrontal cortex for long-term storage. However as we get older, this type of sleep gets harder to come by, as adults have a harder time falling and staying asleep than they did when they were younger. This lack of deep sleep causes “medial prefrontal cortex gray-matter atrophy” and compromised pathways between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, leaving memories “stuck” in the short-term memory part of the brain, only to be rewritten by new ones.
The sleep researchers’ findings offer hope on the possibility of finding new ways to treat memory loss by targeting sleep and brain waves. But there’s no need to wait for these therapies to become available — there are a number of ways to improve your sleep quality:
See your doctor. Many chronic ailments and diseases are behind adults’ disrupted sleep, according to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Rather than thinking these aches and pains are a common side effect of getting older, check with your doctor to get treatment. By treating your medical condition, you can improve your quality of sleep dramatically.
Unplug. We are more connected than ever before — and it’s wreaking havoc on oursleep patterns. Put away your phones, tablets, laptops and other electrical devices an hour before going to bed. “The blue light emitted by these devices interferes with melatonin production, and sends your body the message that it’s daytime, perking you up just as you should be winding down,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
Exercise. Regular physical activity can improve the quality of your sleep, helping you sleep deeper and faster, according to the Mayo Clinic.