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Sleep Deprivation and Memory Loss

It is no secret that a good night's sleep makes you feel better. Not only does sleep give your body time to rest and recharge, it may also be crucial to your brain's ability to learn and remember.

During sleep, while your body rests, your brain is busy processing information from the day and forming memories. If you are sleep deprived, you are at risk of developing a number of serious health problems, such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes, and your ability to learn and retain new information may be impaired.

Recommended Related to Sleep Disorders

Do Seniors Need Less Sleep?

When it comes to myths about sleep, this one refuses to nod off -- and stay asleep. Contrary to popular opinion, older people don't need less sleep than the average person. In fact, adults require about the same amount of sleep from their 20s into old age, although the number of hours per night varies from person to person. But many older adults get much less sleep than they need, for a variety of reasons. Take Harry Gaertner, a 68-year-old retiree from Richardson, Texas. He remembers first being...

Read the Do Seniors Need Less Sleep? article > >

This may not be news to anyone who has pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test only to find the facts and figures they knew at 2 a.m. could not be recalled the next day. Without adequate sleep, your brain becomes foggy, your judgment poor, and your fine motor skills hindered.

The Power of Sleep

Imaging and behavioral studies continue to show the critical role sleep plays in learning and memory. Researchers believe that sleep affects learning and memory in two ways:

  • Lack of sleep impairs a person's ability to focus and learn efficiently.
  • Sleep is necessary to consolidate a memory (make it stick) so that it can be recalled in the future.

Making Memories

There are different types of memories. Some are fact-based, such as remembering the name of state capitals. Some are episodic -- based on events in your life, such as your first kiss. And some memories are procedural or instructional, such as how to ride a bike or play the piano.

For something to become a memory, three functions must occur, including:

  • Acquisition -- learning or experiencing something new
  • Consolidation -- the memory becomes stable in the brain
  • Recall -- having the ability to access the memory in the future

Both acquisition and recall are functions that take place when you are awake. However, researchers believe sleep is required for consolidation of a memory, no matter the memory type. Without adequate sleep, your brain has a harder time absorbing and recalling new information.

Sleep does more than help sharpen the mind. Studies show that sleep affects physical reflexes, fine motor skills, and judgment, too. One study showed that participants who were sleep deprived were more likely to think they were right when they were, in fact, wrong.

Studies involving memory tests show that after a single night of sleep, or even a nap, people perform better, whether on a test, in the office, on the athletic field, or in a concert hall.

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