How Sleeping Well May Protect Your Memory

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Sleep is a fundamental and essential biological process, and serious health complications can develop when we don’t sleep too well or are deprived of sleep, especially for long periods of time.

Inadequate or disturbed sleep is an all too common occurrence. It’s especially common among those over 40 and particularly those who are also overweight. The most common sleep problems are difficulty falling asleep (i.e., insomnia) and the kind of interrupted sleep caused by snoring and apnea (i.e., interruptions in regular breathing patterns during sleep). Disturbed sleep is associated with several health risks, ranging from immune system compromise to impaired heart health.

Recently, evidence has been accumulating that a good night’s sleep may be even more important for brain health and sound cognitive functioning than we previously believed, especially with regard to memory formation and preservation. Some researchers are even beginning to believe that getting a good night’s sleep might hold the key to lowering one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s Disease and some of the other dementias. This speculation centers on those intriguing amyloid protein plaques that clog up neural networks in the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers and have long been suspected to be at the root of or at least highly contributory to the disease. A very readable summary of some of the more recent research in this area can be found at the website for the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation.

The relationship between sleep and memory is becoming increasingly clear. It seems that while we sleep, certain chemicals in our spinal fluid flush away the pesky beta-amyloids that are the prime suspect in some cognitive impairments. Over time, because of inadequate cleansing, these amyloid proteins can build up and sometimes accumulate into plaques. Researchers using brain imaging techniques have found that those who have high levels of these amyloid proteins in their brains also tend to have the most disturbed sleep. They have also found that these individuals did significantly poorer than those with lower amyloid levels on tests of recall ability. The type of deep level sleep that some refer to as “restorative” sleep appears particularly important to long-term memory formation and solidification. All this evidence suggests that getting a good night’s sleep is not only crucial to maintaining a healthy memory but also may be important to fending off the kinds of cognitive decline that many once considered an inevitable byproduct of aging.

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While the link between sleep disturbances and high brain amyloid levels and memory impairment appears fairly clear, there is some debate about causality. Some researchers think that the amyloids are the culprit in sound sleep impairment. Others cite disturbed sleep and the inadequate cleansing of amyloids during sleep as the cause of abnormally high levels of the proteins. Most, however, resolve this “chicken or the egg” argument by suggesting that a vicious cycle of sorts exists, with amyloids building up as a result of poor sleep and high amyloid levels damaging the prospects for good sleep. In any case, taking steps to ensure a better night’s rest appears to be the prime way to break this vicious cycle. The National Sleep Foundation has some tips for doing exactly that, which include:

Sticking to a schedule
It’s a good idea to retire at around the same time every night — even on weekends. This helps establish and preserve a regular biological rhythm.
Getting exercise during the day
At least 20 minutes of good exercise during the day helps prepare your body for sleep at night. While it’s not a good idea to exercise right before bedtime, getting daily exercise also helps promote the establishment of regular biological rhythms.
Relax before retiring
Some people find it helpful to employ a relaxation routine or “ritual” such as reading a passage or two from a good book to help their bodies switch into a more relaxed mode as a prelude to sleep.
Be comfortable
Having a supportive pillow, comfortable mattress, and cozy covers makes going to sleep not only a lot easier but also far more desirable.
Be careful what you ingest prior to bedtime
Heavy meals right before bed can impair your sleep, as can consuming caffeinated drinks or stimulant drugs, including nicotine. While some folks think an alcoholic beverage before retiring helps them relax, the experts say it’s probably not helpful to consume alcohol right before bedtime.
Don’t stay in an environment where you’ve had repeated trouble sleeping
It’s possible for us to become adversely “conditioned” to our environment. So, sometimes changing our environment is key to breaking out of a bad sleep routine. Try moving to a different bedroom or otherwise changing your surroundings until a more regular sleeping routine is restored.

How important good sleep is to our overall health is becoming more evident with every passing day. In view of the recent findings, there’s sure to be more research on the relationship between sleep and memory and other cognitive problems. For now, however, it’s a safe bet that if you want to have a sharper mind and a clearer memory, you would do well to get a good night’s rest. If you’re one of the millions suffering from some sort of sleep disorder, it’s best to talk to your doctor about it as early as possible, as the long term effects of impaired sleep increasingly appear to be more numerous and serious than we once thought.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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