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Memory Problems? You Might Need More Sleep

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MEMORY LOSS IS OFTEN seen as an inevitable part of aging. The CDC states that about 13% of seniors, defined as those age 60 and older, self-report memory problems and confusion. However, not all memory problems are age-related, and it can be scary to find yourself struggling to recall information.

While there are certainly medical conditions that can affect the memory, the solution may be as simple as getting enough shut-eye. A growing body of research indicates that there is a strong correlation between sleep deprivation and memory loss.

Types of Memory Problems

There are several different types of forgetfulness. While some are caused by a medical problem, others are commonplace occurrences.

    • Absentmindednessoccurs when you don’t pay attention in the first place. It’s hard to locate a lost item if you were distracted when you laid it down.
    • Blockingis sometimes called “tip of the tongue syndrome.” We’ve all experienced that moment when you’re asked to recall a name or fact that you definitely know, but the right words just won’t come. This is often caused by the brain retrieving the wrong memory.
    • Suggestibility is the process by which the brain is influenced to produce incorrect information or false memories. For example, a vague childhood memory of a trip to the beach may be filled in by the brain with information you learned after the fact, such as Aunt Tilda gleefully retelling the story of how you lost your swim trunks.

The following memory disorders require medical attention. Talk to your physician if your memory loss symptoms are cause for concern.

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    • Dementia is a disease affecting the brain that causes numerous symptoms, including memory loss and confusion. There are different types of dementia, including vascular dementia, which may occur after an event such as a stroke, and alcohol-related dementia, caused by long-term exposure to the toxins in alcohol.
    • Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that attacks the central nervous system, causing a number of cognitive problems. In some cases, Alzheimer’s disease may be genetic.
The Connection Between Sleep and Memory

There’s mounting scientific evidence that sleep and memory are closely related: sleep plays a critical role in memory formation and cognitive function. Healthy sleep includes consistency – a regular bedtime – and adequate rest. Most adults need seven or eight hours per night.

Your body cycles through sleep phases in 90-minute periods, including light, deep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. While you sleep, the brain sorts through short-term memories and decides which are worth keeping, which should be converted to long-term memory, and which should be discarded altogether. After all, it’s not practical to remember every tiny detail of your day.

Light and deep stages prepare the brain for absorbing new information, so it’s just as important to get enough sleep before studying as it is to sleep before an exam. During the REM stage, the brain links new memories to existing memories, improving recall. The National Institutes of Health reports that if you sleep four hours or fewer, initial learning ability drops by 40 percent, while the recall strengthening process may not occur at all.

Age-related memory loss appears to be related to declining sleep quality. The deep sleep stage starts to decline in our late 30s and drops off significantly after age 60. Researchers recognize the value of the connection between sleep and memory. They are currently pursuing ways to regain deep sleep lost to age, so greater strides in memory retention may be on the horizon.

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