Want to Improve Your Memory and Keep Your Brain from Aging Too Quickly? Get a Good Night’s Sleep!

Q. I’ve had trouble sleeping for quite some time. I still function pretty well, as far as making it to work, being productive, and spending quality time with my family and friends. One thing seems a little off. I often feel like I’ve become forgetful and my brain isn’t as sharp as it once was. Is there a correlation between my not sleeping well at night and my forgetfulness?

A. There are few things that are as beneficial for your brain and your memory as having a good night’s sleep. We spend one-third of our lives either asleep or attempting to sleep. That means, if you live to age 76 (the most recent average life expectancy in the US, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC)), you’ll likely spend around 25 years of your life sleeping.

There are many reasons for poor sleep in middle age: working long hours, insomnia, caregiving responsibilities, anxiety, depression, worrying, deadlines, and other reasons. But getting six to eight hours of sleep is optimal, and new research shows that it’s more important than we ever realized!  

Not Sleeping Well? 

Those who don’t sleep well at night may feel tired and have trouble paying attention when their circadian rhythm (internal clock) is telling them to sleep, but their brain just isn’t cooperating, causing sleeplessness. Not sleeping enough will also impair your ability to hold onto important memories, as I will explain.  

What the Brain Does When We Sleep 

Scientists are constantly learning new information about how the brain functions. Each night while you sleep, the connections between the neurons in your brain (called synapses) shrink to reduce or eliminate the memories you don’t need — such as what you had for breakfast last week and the clothes you wore yesterday. This selective pruning of memories during the night prepares you to form new memories the next day. 

While getting rid of memories we no longer need, sleep also helps us consolidate the memories we want to preserve, transferring them from temporarily accessible memories (short-term memory) to those that can be recalled years later (long-term memory). According to Harvard Medical School, memories for facts and skills, in particular, both show greater retention over a 12-hour period that includes sleep versus a 12-hour period while awake. Also, much of the consolidation of memories occurs during the sleep phase that occurs in the hours prior to awakening. This means that if you get up early without a full night’s rest, you may be impairing your ability to hold onto your memories. 

Inadequate Sleep Can Increase Your Risk of Dementia 

Sleep isn’t just good for your memory; it might actually reduce your risk of dementia. Studies show that there is a correlation between lack of sleep and increased risk for dementia. In a study published in the journal Aging, researchers at Harvard Medical School studied more than 2,800 individuals ages 65 and older to examine the relationship between their self-report of sleep characteristics and their development of dementia and/or death five years later. Researchers found that individuals who slept fewer than five hours per night were twice as likely to develop dementia, and twice as likely to die, compared to those who slept six to eight hours per night! 

It is not completely understood why inadequate sleep is correlated with dementia risk. One possible reason, according to scientists, relates to deposits of the protein beta amyloid (the protein that clusters and clumps together to form Alzheimer’s plaques.) During the day, we all make some of this beta amyloid protein in the brain. When we sleep, brain cells and their connections actually shrink, as described earlier. If you aren’t sleeping, the beta amyloid and other substances that accumulate during the day may not be flushed away, as they are supposed to be, causing a buildup of the beta amyloid in the brain. The theory is that these substances then continue to accumulate, day after day, until they cause dementia. 

The Human Brain “Looks Years Older” After Just One Night Without Sleep! 

Another worrisome thing happens when we don’t get enough sleep! Have you ever pulled an all-nighter? A very recent study, published Feb. 20, 2023, in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that one night of complete sleep deprivation produces changes in the brain similar to those seen after one or two years of aging!  

Researchers in Germany studied 134 healthy volunteers — between 19 and 39 years old — analyzing their MRI data after various states of sleep from five categories of sleep conditions. The conditions scientists assessed were: total sleep deprivation (more than 24 hours of prolonged wakefulness), partial deprivation (three hours in bed for one night) and chronic deprivation (five hours in bed each night for five nights). The study also included a control group that slept eight hours a night. 

Each group had at least one night of “baseline sleep” where they spent eight hours in bed. All participants had an MRI taken after each sleep session, to compare what their brains looked like before and after sleep deprivation, and after sleeping for eight hours. In comparison to the baseline sleep, the authors noted they “consistently” observed total sleep deprivation increased the appearance of brain age by one to two years. 

The results from this study don’t mean that a few sleepless nights will cause irreversible aging. On a positive note, despite the brain structure appearing to age rapidly when starved of rest, researchers also found a full night of sleep following a deprived one appears to reverse the effects. 

The authors say that although the study indicates sleepless nights may affect the brain in the short term, research is still needed for the long-term effects of chronic sleep loss. 

The CDC Recommends Six to Eight Hours of Sleep for Adults 

Just like healthy eating and exercising, sleep is absolutely essential for good brain health. The studies described in this article show that the harmful effects of inadequate sleep can possibly lead to dementia and the brain aging faster. If you’re having trouble sleeping, nonpharmacological approaches are best. For some helpful tips for getting an appropriate amount of sleep, please read today’s Critter Corner here!  

Plan Ahead for Peace of Mind 

Sleeping well, exercising, and eating right are sometimes not enough to prevent a medical emergency. That’s why adults of all ages should sign an advance medical directive and a general power of attorney. Signing these incapacity planning documents is the only way to ensure that your wishes are met in the simplest and least expensive manner if you should become unable to make important decisions for yourself. 

If you have not done incapacity planning or estate planning, or if you have a loved one who is nearing the need for long-term care or already receiving long-term care, please contact the Farr Law Firm as soon as possible to make an appointment for an initial consultation: 

Northern Virginia Elder Law: 703-691-1888    
Fredericksburg, VA Elder Law: 540-479-1435    
Rockville, MD Elder Law: 301-519-8041    
Annapolis, MD Elder Law: 410-216-0703    
Washington, DC Elder Law: 202-587-2797 

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About Evan H Farr, CELA, CAP

Evan H. Farr is a 4-time Best-Selling author in the field of Elder Law and Estate Planning. In addition to being one of approximately 500 Certified Elder Law Attorneys in the Country, Evan is one of approximately 100 members of the Council of Advanced Practitioners of the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys and is a Charter Member of the Academy of Special Needs Planners.

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