mature woman with insomnia
Sleep Hygiene

Memory Loss Linked to Poor Sleep

A lack of sleep among older people elevates risk of memory loss as well as a number of physical and mental disorders, according to new research.

UC Berkeley researchers published their conclusion in the journal Neuron.

“Nearly every disease killing us in later life has a causal link to lack of sleep,” said the article’s senior author, Matthew Walker, a UC Berkeley professor of psychology and neuroscience. “We’ve done a good job of extending life span, but a poor job of extending our health span. We now see sleep, and improving sleep, as a new pathway for helping remedy that.”

Unlike more cosmetic markers of aging, such as wrinkles and gray hair, sleep deterioration has been linked to such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke, he said.

Though older people are less likely than younger cohorts to notice and/or report mental fogginess and other symptoms of sleep deprivation, numerous brain studies reveal how poor sleep leaves them cognitively worse off.

Moreover, the shift from deep, consolidated sleep in youth to fitful, dissatisfying sleep can start as early as one’s 30s, paving the way for sleep-related cognitive and physical ailments in middle age.

And, while the pharmaceutical industry is raking in billions by catering to insomniacs, Walker warns that the pills designed to help us doze off are a poor substitute for the natural sleep cycles that the brain needs in order to function well.

“Don’t be fooled into thinking sedation is real sleep. It’s not,” he said.

For their review of sleep research, Walker and fellow researchers Bryce Mander and Joseph Winer cite studies, including some of their own, that show the aging brain has trouble generating the kind of slow brain waves that promote deep curative sleep, as well as the neurochemicals that help us switch stably from sleep to wakefulness.

“The parts of the brain deteriorating earliest are the same regions that give us deep sleep,” said article lead author Mander, a postdoctoral researcher in Walker’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory at UC Berkeley.

Aging typically brings on a decline in deep non-rapid eye movement (NREM) or “slow wave sleep,” and the characteristic brain waves associated with it, including both slow waves and faster bursts of brain waves known as “sleep spindles.”

Youthful, healthy slow waves and spindles help transfer memories and information from the hippocampus, which provides the brain’s short-term storage, to the prefrontal cortex, which consolidates the information, acting as the brain’s long-term storage.

“Sadly, both these types of sleep brain waves diminish markedly as we grow old, and we are now discovering that this sleep decline is related to memory decline in later life,” said Winer, a doctoral student in Walker’s lab.