Sleep deprivation and memory loss: is there a link?

January 27, 2021 4 mins read
Sleep deprivation and memory loss: is there a link?

Science continues to unearth how critical sleep is to our wellbeing with research providing further evidence of how sleep and memory are closely linked.

Several studies have discovered the connection between how getting a full night’s rest can set you up to have better cognitive abilities. Researchers have explored how sleep helps you improve your memory so you’re able to learn more proactively, remember what you learnt and form connections between what your brain has absorbed.

But how does losing out on shut-eye lead to memory loss? In this article, we’ll look at the adverse effects of not sleeping enough and how it contributes to memory loss.

How does sleep affect your memory?

Without high-quality sleep, your ability to focus and learn is affected. When you sleep, your brain cycles through rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in which dreaming occurs. Scientists believe this is where memory consolidation takes place, so if your sleep is interrupted or you don’t get your fill of REM sleep then you are more likely to experience memory loss.

This was backed up by a 2017 study by Michigan State University. Published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, the study analysed major global disasters such as Chernobyl and the Challenger explosion and found that both disasters were caused by people who were sleep-deprived.

In the study, the authors observed 230 people carry out cognitive tasks at night. The test groups were interrupted occasionally and asked to recall the series of tasks they had performed. The study found that 15% were inaccurate in accomplishing their tasks and could not recall the sequence of the tasks.

Researchers have also found that when asleep, the brain produces brain waves which transfer memories from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex. This is where long-term memories are stored and recalled by the brain for different purposes like work or studying.

When you don’t sleep well, your memories get ‘stuck’ in the hippocampus and don’t travel to the prefrontal cortex. This is how forgetfulness occurs.

How many hours of sleep do you need for memory?

The average recommended hours of sleep needed to retain information and help to store memories is between 7-9 hours. According to Harvard University, this amount of sleep also helps to maintain memory as a person grows older.

Getting enough rest can also stave off degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s which affects memory. Researchers have also learnt that getting less than 7 hours of sleep can prematurely age the brain by 2 years.

When you sleep for 7-9 hours, the brain gets a chance to regenerate new cells, flush out toxins and strengthen the connections it has through synaptic pruning.

Does lack of sleep affect brain function?

Sleep deprivation does affect brain function. The brain has a prime opportunity to regenerate and revitalise itself through slumber. If you are sleep deprived, your brain feels the effects through exhaustion and it not being able to carry out its functions.

Neurons (brain cells) actively communicate with each other during sleep, playing a housekeeping function. Toxins built up from the day are removed while the signals become muddled up either delaying your reflexes and coordination.

Can sleep deprivation cause memory problems?

Over time, going without proper sleep will cause memory problems. Your short-term and long-term memory and ability to form new memories can be impeded by a lack of sleep.

According to studies from the Universities of Groningen and Pennsylvania, sleep deprivation leads to a change in neurons as they struggle to connect. After 5 hours of sleep deprivation, the neurons begin to tire and wear out.

Researchers also found that by catching up on sleep or settling your sleep debt, you can restore your brain’s functioning and overall memory function.

How to beat sleep deprivation

So you’re armed with information on how sleep deprivation can contribute to memory loss. But how to actually get more rest?

  • If you’re suffering from insomnia or battling to fall and stay asleep, try some natural home remedies.
  • Meditation has been proven to reduce blood pressure and ease the nervous system which has benefits for helping with anxiety and depression.
  • Light stretches or yoga before bed can ease tension and trigger the release of feel-good hormone serotonin and melatonin.
  • Sleep teas like chamomile and valerian root help to relax the body and mind as they are mild tranquilisers.

Rest and relaxation are nature’s way of recharging the body. By ensuring that you get uninterrupted slumber, you’ll reap the benefits of a well-rested mind, able to store and recall memories.