How Sleep Problems Can Lead to Memory Issues

An older man lies awake in bed in the middle of the night

Poor sleep habits can raise your risk of dementia. Here’s how to get a good night’s sleep and protect your brain.

Of course you’d love to get the perfect night’s sleep every night – or at least most of the time. Besides wanting to feel well rested, getting too little sleep or having a wacky sleep schedule can have serious health consequences. Poor sleep habits are linked to a higher risk of heart problems and depression.

Here’s even more reason to wrangle your sleep schedule: Research shows that too little or irregular sleep can lead to memory problems and an increased risk of developing dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

Find out about the link between sleep and weight gain.

The sleep-memory connection

Thinking back, you’ll realize you already know that a lack of sleep challenges your memory. Remember your parents saying it was better to get some sleep instead of staying up all night cramming before a test? Well, they were right. It’s during the deepest phase of sleep that the brain solidifies memories.

“If we go without sleep,” Dr. Indira Gurubhagavatula, a sleep specialist at Penn Medicine, told The New York Times, “we ourselves are aware that the next day we have a hard time remembering things: ‘Where did I leave my keys? What’s that person’s name?’” Over time, lack of sleep can lead to more serious and permanent memory loss.

Also, sleep helps clean up your brain. It actually flushes out waste products that build up during the day, including beta-amyloid proteins. If these proteins aren’t cleared out, they can cause plaques that can interfere with brain functioning and lead to Alzheimer’s disease. Deep sleep is especially good at clearing the brain of these problematic proteins, which makes it essential to help prevent dementia. So it’s a good goal to get more deep sleep.

Learn about 8 Ways to Sharpen Your Memory.

Why sleep matters so much

From age 65 and up, the optimal night’s sleep is seven to eight hours. During that time your brain cycles between different phases of deep and not-so-deep sleep several times. If you’re sleeping less than seven hours, there’s just not enough time for your brain to squeeze in all the sleep cycles it needs to store memories and clean out toxins.

Research shows that losing as little as 1% of deep sleep each year is linked to a 27% increase in dementia risk. And it’s not just the total hours that matter. Keeping to a regular sleep schedule helps lower your risk of dementia, too. In one new study from Australia, people with the most varied weekly sleep habits had a 53% higher risk of developing dementia than others.

Discover 8 Activities to Help Improve Brain Health.

Get better at sleeping

Try these tips to get more hours of sleep on most nights.

Keep a consistent sleep schedule.

Going to bed and waking up at about the same time every day helps regulate your body’s circadian rhythm (the cycle of physical and mental changes your body undergoes every 24 hours). Consistency can make sleep more restful and restorative.

Does Medicare Pay for Sleep Studies?

Create a sleep-friendly bedroom.

A bedroom that is cool, dark, and quiet sets the stage for a good night’s sleep. Use your bed only for sleep. (OK, for sex too!)

Cut back on screen time before bedtime.

The blue light from electronic devices can interfere with the release of melatonin, a hormone that signals your body that it’s time to sleep. If you can, avoid screens for two hours before bedtime. Also, check if your devices have a setting that reduces blue light.

Exercise regularly.

Regular activity is proven to improve sleep quality – and it also reduces the risk of dementia too. Each week, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise like brisk walking.

Don’t toss and turn.

Try a soothing pre-sleep routine that signals to your body that it’s time to wind down. And if you haven’t fallen asleep after 20 minutes in bed, get up. Do something calming like stretching or reading (not on your phone!) before trying to go back to sleep again.

See a doctor about sleep issues.

If you have ongoing sleep issues or never feel rested after long hours of sleeping, see your doctor to check for conditions like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This problem is often signaled by heavy snoring. OSA causes people to stop breathing for a moment and wake up gasping for air many times a night – without even realizing it. That makes it hard to get the most restorative stages of sleep. There are treatments for OSA that can help you get the rest you need.

Learn more about sleep apnea and CPAP machines.

Psychological issues can also interfere with sleep. Mental health professionals can help you get to the bottom of common sleep problems like insomnia. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of the best treatments for this problem.

Medicare & your mental health

Struggling with sleep problems? Medicare may be able to help. Medicare offers coverage for sleep studies that can get to the root of the problem. It also covers CPAP machines that treat sleep apnea.

A Medicare Advantage plan may be able to offer more help – such as helping with over-the-counter drugstore purchases, such as the sleep aid melatonin. Compare plans in your area with our easy-to-use Find a Plan tool.

Additional resources

Insomnia? Memory issues? When you need help picking the right Medicare plan for your health concerns, call us to speak to a licensed agent.

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Lynn Cicchelli is a writer with over 20 years' worth of experience creating healthy lifestyle content for both print and digital publications. Originally from New York, Lynn currently lives in Connecticut with her husband, stepson, and dog Indiana.


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