How Does Sleep Affect Your Memory?

Getting a good night’s sleep can be harder as we age. Stress, aches and pains, even medications that otherwise are helping us in our waking hours can be a hindrance as we’re trying to get some rest.

Why is sleep important for memory? Sleep is important for us in many ways and is an essential process that allows our body to rest and rejuvenate. It’s also important to help preserve memories. When sleep is affected, this can affect our memory, too.

Find out more about sleep and memory, how sleep affects the brain in seniors, and what you can do to get a better sleep experience.

How Sleep and Memory Work

Better sleep generally means better memory. That’s because the two are connected.

There are four stages of sleep, according to Healthline:

Stage 1: Falling Asleep

At this stage, heartbeat and breathing slow, and muscles begin to relax. 

This lasts only a few minutes.

Stage 2: Light Sleep

Your heartbeat and breathing slow down even more. Your eyes don’t move and your body temperature drops. Your brain produces “sleep spindles,” which scientists believe are involved in learning and memory. 

This stage lasts about 25 minutes.

Stage 3: Slow Wave Sleep

This is the deepest stage of sleep, where your breathing and heart rate slows the most. There are still no eye movements, and the body is fully relaxed. 

At this stage, tissue repair and growth occur, and cells regenerate. The immune system also strengthens.

Stage 4: REM Sleep

This is the primary dream stage, named for the phenomenon of rapid eye movement. Breathing and heart rates increase but the limb muscles become paralyzed, apparently to keep you from jolting around inside your dream. The brain becomes much more active at this stage. 

This REM stage is thought to be important for storing memories and other cognitive functions.

Here’s how memory works in us.

  • Encoding: This is when you first experience something, when you perceive and learn information.
  • Storing: This is when your experiences are stored away in your mind, as memories. Stages of sleep, including REM, help store memories.
  • Retrieving: This is when you recall information or experiences. If you can’t remember something, that’s because you have trouble retrieving the information.

Some factors can impact storage or retrieval of memory, including age and problems with sleep. 

How Aging and Sleep Issues Affect Memory

As we age, different types of memory are affected differently. 

For example, working memory, which is the ability to hold and use information in the short term, declines with age. However, other types of memory, such as long-term memory, are relatively stable or even improve with age. 

>> Read “Age Related Memory Loss: What’s Normal?

As a senior, you’re more likely to experience sleep disturbances that can interfere with memory consolidation. Sleep disturbances can lead to daytime sleepiness, difficulty concentrating, and memory problems. 

You also may tend to have shorter sleep duration and less deep sleep, which are essential for memory consolidation. 

Barriers to Better Sleep

More than 70 million people have sleep disorders, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Here are some of the conditions that can interfere with sleep:

  • Insomnia: This is a difficulty sleeping. Some who have insomnia have trouble falling asleep, others can’t stay asleep, and yet others have both problems. Insomnia can cause daytime sleepiness and excessive fatigue.
  • Narcolepsy: This is a disorder that causes extreme daytime sleepiness and sudden bouts of sleep. It also causes poor sleep at night. In some cases, it can cause sudden loss of muscle control and collapse, called cataplexy.
  • Restless Leg Syndrome: This is also a disorder which causes a discomfort in the legs, occurring as bedtime approaches. This can cause sufferers to have trouble sleeping.
  • Sleep Apnea: This causes a sudden halt to breathing during sleep. These periods are called apnea. They occur because the throat’s airways can become too narrow to allow air flow. This negatively affects sleep quality.

How to Get Better Sleep (and Help Your Memory)

It’s important for you to get good sleep as you age. Not only do you feel more rested, but better sleep can help you sharpen your memory.

There are several steps seniors can take to improve their sleep and memory:

  • Create a relaxing sleep environment: Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. Avoid using electronic devices before bedtime. Don’t spend too much time awake in bed.
  • Engage in physical and mental activity: Exercise during the day can help improve sleep quality. Activity also can improve cognitive function. Brain games and memory training exercises can also help.

>> Read “10 Best Brain Games for Seniors

  • Have a backup plan: If you wake up during the night and can’t immediately fall asleep, get out of bed. Do something that may make you sleepy, like listening to quiet music or reading a book, but only for a set amount of time, such as 20 minutes. Then, get back to bed and try to resume sleep.
  • Limit napping during the day: Try not to sleep more than 20 or 30 minutes. If you sleep longer, you might find yourself wide-awake late at night.
  • Maintain a consistent sleep schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, even on weekends, can help regulate the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.
  • Review your medicines: Seniors may take a variety of medicines that can affect their ability to sleep. Ask your doctor about side effects and alternatives if your sleep is being affected.
  • Spend time outside during the day: Exposing yourself to natural light can help maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, which is the natural sleep-wake cycle.
  • Start a sleep ritual: Enjoy a hot bath one or two hours before bedtime. You can also try meditation or a little reading before bed. Whatever you do, make it a routine that is followed by sleep.
  • Watch your stimulant intake: Chocolate, cigarettes, coffee, and cola can interfere with your sleep. Avoid these for four to six hours before bedtime. Also limit alcohol. It disrupts REM and slow wave sleep, both of which help improve memory.

Sleep Tight at a Senior Lifestyle Community

Sleep plays a critical role in memory consolidation, particularly in seniors. You can find a restful, secure life at a Senior Lifestyle community. Some of our communities also specialize in Memory Care, for adults who are facing cognitive conditions.

Find out more about Senior Lifestyle and schedule a tour.

Find a Community

For more information on retirement and senior housing options, reach out to a Senior Lifestyle community near you.