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The Effect Sleep Deprivation Has on Memory

Different Sounds Affect Our Sleep

How did you feel the last time you missed sleep? Individuals who don’t get quality sleep feel groggy and unproductive the next day. You may notice that regular daily activities like walking the dog, talking to your boss, or even making yourself dinner are more difficult. Sleep deprivation affects your mind and body in several ways, but what you might not know is that it can affect your memory. Your memory is part of who you are, and your memories shape your mood and behaviors, so your mind needs to be able to preserve memories and discard information it doesn’t need. This process, called memory consolidation, occurs while you slumber during rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep stages. 

Sleep deprivation prevents your brain from properly preserving memory, and insufficient sleep can affect cognitive functions responsible for memory. Quality sleep is important for physical and mental health, allowing your brain to function properly, so getting enough sleep is key for maintaining your ability to remember everything from tasks at work to important information you learned throughout the day. 

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Connection Between Sleep and Memory

Sleep and other cognitive abilities are part of a complex relationship, and getting enough quality sleep helps you process information, enhancing learning through memories that are stored in your brain. A healthy sleep cycle has four stages and alternates between NREM and REM sleep. NREM sleep is important for preparing your brain to learn new information, and not getting enough sleep can lower your ability to learn. 

During NREM sleep, the brain also sorts memories, filtering out and removing unimportant information, which is why you may not remember what you ate for dinner or any part of your drive home after work the previous night. REM sleep is when your brain processes emotional memories and continues to process the other information from the day. During REM sleep, the brain receives signals from your senses, relaying sounds, images, smells, and other sensations, which may then be integrated into dreams. 

Sleep Deprivation and Memory

When you don’t get enough sleep, you may experience many signs of sleep deprivation, including difficulty remembering things. You may have short-term or long-term memory loss. For example, when you’re sleep-deprived, you may have difficulty remembering something from the day before or information you learned years ago. 

Sleep deprivation also affects how memories are stored and consolidated, resulting in difficulty learning or making decisions and poor behavioral or emotional control. Of course, how much sleep you need varies from person to person and depends on age. Children have relatively stronger memory consolidation after a good night’s sleep, which is why children often learn better than adults. Since sleep deprivation can hurt your ability to form and process memories, you may think that getting more sleep can counteract this effect and even improve memory. However, that’s not the case. 

Too much sleep can also lead to cognitive issues, so everyone should strive for the recommended amount of sleep depending on their age. Adults should aim for 7-9 hours, while younger children need much more sleep. 

Sleep Quality

It’s important to note that while the number of hours you sleep is important, sleep quality may be even more important. If you spend 8 hours a night tossing and turning, you’re not getting 8 hours of sleep. Unfortunately, sleep quality decreases as you get older, which may be tied to brain signals or underlying health conditions that prevent quality sleep. 

For example, sleep apnea is most common in older adults and can affect your memory. Any sleep disorder can negatively impact your ability to process and store information. Some of these disorders may actually promote memory loss because it leads to sleep deprivation. 

Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula for determining your sleep quality. Instead, you can usually tell if you had a good night’s sleep if you wake up feeling refreshed and well-rested. If you’re constantly waking up feeling tired, it may mean you’re tossing and turning or waking up throughout the night, resulting in poor sleep quality. 

What Causes Sleep Deprivation?

Unfortunately, there are many causes of sleep deprivation and two different types that can affect your memory. Acute sleep deprivation only occurs in the short term and may be caused by minor stress or illness. Meanwhile, chronic sleep deprivation is a serious sleep problem and affects your sleep quality for three or more months. 

It’s important to note that sleep deprivation is not the same as insomnia. While they both prevent you from getting the sleep you need to form memories, insomnia refers to individuals that have trouble sleeping, while sleep deprivation refers to individuals that don’t give themselves enough time to sleep due to behavioral choices like staying up all night streaming their favorite television shows. 

If you’re sleep deprived, it could be due to many reasons, ranging from behavioral choices to sleep disorders and medical conditions, so if you’re not getting enough sleep, consider consulting your doctor for advice. 

Getting Better Quality Sleep

If you want to improve your memory, especially as you age, you must allocate enough time to sleep every night. Here are a few ways you can improve your sleep quality:

  • Set a regular schedule
  • Exercise, but not too close to bedtime
  • Avoid caffeine in the afternoon and at night
  • Don’t eat before bed
  • Reduce stress levels
  • Buy a new mattress
  • Avoid devices that emit blue light before bedtime
  • Create a relaxing environment
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Whether you want to improve your memory because you’re aging or you’re trying to learn a new skill, you need quality sleep. While college students are notorious for staying up all night to study, science has proven that sleep deprivation from this behavioral choice can actually inhibit your ability to learn new information. Setting aside enough time every night to ensure you can get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep is crucial, especially if you have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. If you find yourself unable to fall asleep during your allocated bedtime, but maybe dosing off during work or your beauty appointments, consult a doctor who can help you improve your sleep habits and get better sleep.

Megan Isola

Megan Isola

Megan Isola holds a Bachelor of Science in Hospitality and a minor in Business Marketing from Cal State University Chico. She enjoys going to concerts, trying new restaurants, and hanging out with friends.

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