Aging may affect restful sleep and the ability to retain long-term memories

Changes that occur in the brain as people age may cause them to lose sleep and could have a negative impact on their long-term memory, according to a new study.

The journal Nature Neuroscience reported that researchers at the University of California (UC) at Berkeley indicate in a study that if the slow-wave phase of sleeping – about one-fourth of an individual’s nightly rest – is disturbed, it can affect the ability to recall memories.

Study participants consisted of those of retirement age and people in their early 20s. Brain images showed that the medial prefrontal cortex in members of the older group was about one-third smaller than in the younger participants, a reduction attributed to natural atrophy as people age.

The research team had the two groups learn a long list of words that included unrelated, nonsensical syllables before they went to bed. Not only did the younger participants score about 55 percent better than older individuals when they were tested the next morning, but the younger group also experienced longer periods of slow-wave sleep when their brain waves were measured while they slept.

“Essentially, with age, you lose tissue in this prefrontal area,” concluded Matthew Walker, Ph.D., a psychology and neuroscience professor at UC Berkeley. “You get less quality deep sleep, and have less opportunity to consolidate new memories.”

Study leader Bryce Mander, a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, said the research showed the different results from the two age groups were linked to the quality of their sleep, not their capacity for memories and suggests that improving sleep patterns can impact the ability to store memories.

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