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How poor sleep and memory loss entangle with aging

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Poor memory and poor sleep create a cycle of memory loss with aging

If you’re having trouble remembering where you placed the car keys, it might be because of poor sleep that naturally becomes more difficult as we age. Researchers have discovered how poor sleep and brain deterioration in older adults entangle in a vicious cycle that leads to memory loss.

The study, published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, discovered a vicious cycle between the aging mind and poor sleep that in turn causes more problems with memory.

Until now researchers didn't understand the connection between poor sleep that accompanies getting older and the aging brain.

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley decided to delve into what happens to the mind by studying 18 people in their 20’s and 18 who were in their 70’s.

They looked at how deeply the participants slept by looking at a region of the brain known as the middle frontal lobe that’s crucial for deep quality sleep. The region of the brain also deteriorates with aging.

Tests showed better sleep produced better scores on memory tests related to information learned before going to sleep.

Matthew Walker who led the study explained in a press release, when we’re younger, we have deep sleep that helps us store new information.

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But when we get older sleep quality declines, making it more difficult to retain new facts, which is why we become forgetful later in life.

When we’re young memories get channeled from the brain’s hippocampus that helps us with short-term memory to the prefrontal cortex for storage. It all happens during sleep.

The researchers think poor sleep that comes with aging means memories get parked in the hippocampus where they’re replaced with new information and never stored.

What the finding means is that now researchers have a target for developing new treatments for memory loss in older people.

One such approach is stimulating slow waves in the middle frontal lobe of the brain to provoke deep sleep. Another suggestion is with drug therapy.

Compared to young people who slept well and store memories, older adults in the study scored 55 percent worse on remembering word pairs. Deep sleep was also 75 percent lower than young study participants.

The finding sheds light on what happens to the aging brain that leads to memory loss. Finding ways to help us sleep better as we get older could give older brains a boost.

University of California - Berkeley
January 27, 2013

Image credit: Morguefile