Can't remember the last time you got a good night's sleep? This memory lapse may not be a coincidence, according to a groundbreaking study from the University of California. Scientists there have discovered that poor sleeping patterns as you age may be causing cognitive issues.

Researching Sleep and Memory Loss
"Before we conducted our study, we knew that older folks generally had brain atrophy, disrupted sleep, and poor memory.  However, we didn't know whether or not all of these changes are associated, and if they are, exactly how they inter-relate," says study researcher Bryce Anthony Mander, PhD, postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Sleep Disruption, Aging and Memory Loss
What he and his colleagues discovered is that atrophy (a condition in which cells in the brain are lost or damaged due to aging) in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex was associated with reduced quality of a type of deep sleep called slow wave sleep—the deepest form of non-rapid eye movement sleep.

They also found that it wasn't the brain atrophy alone that interfered with cognitive function, but rather the degree of the disruption in the quality of deep sleep itself that was directly associated with the degree of memory impairment. "These findings suggest that disruptions of deep sleep contribute to cognitive decline in older adults," Mander says.

Exactly how, and why, the relationship among aging, sleep and memory occurs isn't completely clear, but the study did confirm the important role sleep plays in helping short-term memories "move" from the hippocampus (the part of the brain where they are temporarily housed) to be stored in other parts of the brain where they become cemented as long-term memories.

Declining Memory
It isn't only older folks who experience the impact of poor sleep and memory loss. "Most studies suggest that sleep disruption, particularly in deep sleep, begin to occur in the late 30s and progressively decline throughout the lifespan," Mander says. "Memory changes are observed along a similar time scale."

How To Improve Your Sleep Quality
What this means for you, then, is that regardless of your age it's important to make an effort to improve your sleep habits. "One method to improve the quality of sleep is to exercise in the morning or afternoon," Mander suggests. "This will lead to a healthier lifestyle, and deeper, more restorative sleep."

Other ways to get a better night's sleep at any age include:

  • Limit TV and electronics right before bed
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol at night
  • Skip daytime naps
  • Stop food and beverage consumption a few hours before bedtime
  • To promote quality sleep, read a book or listen to music
  • Practice meditation to help you relax and unwind before climbing into bed.

If you still have trouble getting to sleep, it's important to talk to your doctor about other approaches you can try to improve your sleep habits and keep your memory sharp.

Bryce Mander, PhD, reviewed this article.

Geriatric Mental Health Foundation. "Sleeping Well As We Age. Insomnia Is Not a Normal Part of Aging." Geriatric Mental Health Foundation Consumer/Patient Information. N.d. Web. 9 Feb. 2013.

Mander, Bryce Anthony PhD, Postdoctoral Fellow in Psychology, University of California, Berkeley. Email interview. 1 Feb. 2013.