If you feel like your memory isn’t what it used to be, it may be more than just “getting older.” The good news is, there are plenty of quality, time-tested solutions to help get your brain back on track and feeling sharp. One of the easiest and most effective memory-boosters, however, might be the one you’re already working on every day: good sleep habits.
Ask just about anyone—from college students to older folks—and you might find that “getting enough sleep” is actually one of the toughest things to fit into a busy schedule. But for anyone focused on boosting brain power, sleep is important… and getting the right amount of sleep could be one of the most powerful ways to protect your memory and keep your brain working the way you want it to.
How Does Sleep Impact Memory?
Resting, recharging, and remembering—they all have a lot more in common than you might think.
The fact is, sleep plays a key role in helping your brain form, retain, and remember important information gathered throughout the day. It’s a crucial part of the way human memory works… and without the right sleep schedule, you may find yourself struggling to remember the important stuff when your morning alarm goes off.
To really understand how sleep impacts memory, it’s important to understand the basics of how memory works, how memory plays a role in overall brain health, and how sleep plays a critical role in keeping your memory sharp and on-point each and every day.
How Memory Works
Scientific understanding of how memory works and how the brain creates memories is still something of an ongoing discussion. Overall, we do know a few things about memory that are important to understand: long-term memory vs short-term memory, and the three steps toward forming new memories.
Long-Term vs Short-Term Memory
Why is the distinction important? Because long-term and short-term memory work in different ways and work with each other to help you accomplish things, and both are key to making your memory work the way it should.
Think back to some of your most powerful childhood memories—driving your first car, meeting your partner, past holidays or celebrations—and you’ll be tapping into your long-term memory.
These are the important experiences in your life that your brain has retained very consciously, so you can think back and remember them as you get older. Long-term memory also plays a key role in making complex decisions, as you learn from previous experiences (and mistakes) and apply those lessons to new challenges.
In contrast, think about what you had for breakfast this morning, or where you last left your keys. This is short-term memory, activity your brain captures and retains automatically and unconsciously so you can quickly make everyday decisions based on your surroundings. These aren’t big, life-affirming moments; they’re simple, normal occurrences that help you get through the day successfully.
To build long-term memories, you need to use and combine a lot of short-term memories, and your brain’s ability to gather and retain these short-term memories is incredibly important toward keeping your mind and memory sharp overall.
Sleep plays a big role in protecting both short-term and long-term memory, and without the right sleep schedule both could suffer—starting with your ability to form new memories in the first place.
The Three Steps to Forming New Memories
The process of forming new memories for both short- and long-term retention includes three important steps, each of which is necessary for healthy brain function:
- Acquisition, or gathering new information as part of your ongoing, everyday learning process.
- Consolidation, or storing and organizing that information into meaningful, cohesive thoughts.
- Recall, or the ability to quickly retrieve, contextualize, and process this stored information when needed.
Don’t be fooled by how simple these seem: they each play a big role in giving your brain a path to gathering, forming, and using memory in your day-to-day life.
To form strong and lasting memories, your brain needs to be able to accomplish each of these three steps quickly and accurately. That means making sure your brain has the right focus and energy to learn new information, process that information, and put that information to good use when and where it’s needed.
Sleep, as it turns out, plays a big part in keeping all three of these processes moving smoothly as you go about your daily life—and without the right level of sleep, your brain’s ability to retain and recall information could be seriously hindered.
How Sleep Habits Impact Memory
When you sleep, your body may be resting, but your brain is still doing a lot of important work. This resting period is an important time for your brain, when it takes all the information you’ve acquired during the day and forms it into memories.
Those memories are the same one you’ll take with you throughout life… meaning if your brain doesn’t have the right time to do that work, you may find yourself forgetting the things you need to know when you wake up.
Sleep & Memory Consolidation
Perhaps the most crucial impact of sleep on memory is on the brain’s ability to consolidate information into meaningful memories.
Remember: consolidation isn’t about taking in new information, it’s about processing and organizing new information into meaningful memories. There’s a widely accepted hypothesis that sleep is the time period where memory consolidation occurs, and that the sleeping brain provides the ideal conditions for encoding memories for long-term storage.
In fact, the strong association between consolidation and sleep has some scientists suggesting that sleep is “for the brain,” more than it’s for resting the body. That means if you want a healthy, well-functioning brain, you need to get your sleep.
Sleep & Learning
While most of your actual learning process happens while you’re awake—taking in new information and gathering new experiences—sleep plays a critical role in recharging your brain to make room for new memories along the way.
It mainly takes place in a section of the brain called the hippocampus, which is responsible for storing new activity immediately after acquisition. The hippocampus uses complex molecular signaling to store experiences for consolidation into memories.
Some studies suggest that lack of sleep can significantly disrupt these molecular signals in the hippocampus, making it even harder for your brain to properly take in new and important information. Think of it like trying to upload new data to a computer that’s out of storage space: unless you clear out room for new information, you won’t be able to fit much more.
That’s where sleep comes in, providing that necessary “recharging” period for the hippocampus. During sleep, your brain takes all the information you’ve learned during the day and consolidates it into memories, clearing space for new information along the way. Not enough sleep, and you may be waking up with a hippocampus that’s already “half-full.”
Sleep & Recall
Memory is one of our greatest tools for adapting to new challenges. When an unexpected problem presents itself, your brain can think back to other, similar situations to understand the best path forward. Importantly, this only works if your brain can efficiently recall that information when it counts.
Sleep plays a big role in recall, acting as an important period for the hippocampus to transfer newly acquired information to other parts of the brain, especially the neocortex, where it can be encoded and stored as episodic memory.
This is a strong signifier that good sleep habits are highly beneficial to improving and protecting recall, and that maintaining good sleep schedules before learning new information may be beneficial toward retaining and storing that information as lasting memories.
Sleep & Creative Thinking
Sleep has been strongly associated with creative thinking. Some studies show a connection between good sleep habits and an increased ability to associate information into new and creative combinations, especially during and after the rapid eye movement (or REM) phase of sleep.
These studies suggest a correlation between healthy sleep patterns, which give the brain enough time to reach the REM phase and cycle in and out of “deep sleep”, and creative thinking, even when compared to both a non-sleeping control group and a “light sleep” non-rapid eye movement (or NREM) sleep pattern. That means it’s not just how long you sleep, but also how well you sleep, that may impact and even improve your creative processing.
Sleep & Long-Term Memory
While good sleep has been connected to stronger short-term memory recall, what about long-term? Can a good night’s sleep help turn those new experiences into lasting memories?
The answer: quite possibly! A 2009 study by researchers at MIT demonstrated that mice who ran through a maze a then had a chance to sleep would “replay” the course during sleep, helping to remember and memorize that course. The same neural passageways in the brain active during their run through the maze would also activate during sleep, helping the mice to remember their path more efficiently.
Interestingly, mice who had those pathways blocked during sleep did not retain that same information six weeks later, while those mice who did “replay” the maze in their sleep were able to retain the information for much longer.
While the science on sleep and long-term memory is still in the research phase, there’s strong evidence to suggest that sleep acts as a natural pathway for “new memories” to become “long-term memories,” and that good sleep may be crucial to building these lasting connections.
How Do Good Sleep Habits Help Protect Against Memory Loss?
With the connection between sleep and memory growing stronger in recent years, there has been much focus on the impact of good sleep habits on a person’s ability to create, form, and keep lasting memories throughout their lives.
There are studies that suggest that sleep deprivation (or the consistent lack of good sleep) can directly contribute to poor memory in people of all ages, and conditions like sleep apnea and insomnia can make this worse over time. There’s also some evidence to suggest that people over the age of 60 also tend to experience a 70% loss in deep sleep compared to younger people, which can make memory problems associated with sleep get even worse as we get older.
That’s why it’s so important to focus on maintaining good sleep habits and sleep schedules at all points of life, and especially as we get older.
How Can I Improve My Sleep Habits?
Whether you’re looking for ways to build better sleep habits or ways to improve your sleep in general, there are a few easy ways to make sure you’re getting the shuteye you need to keep your brain sharp.
What Are “Good” Sleep Habits?
The actual “amount” of sleep required for each person actually changes as you get older, but a good guideline for anyone over 18 years old is to aim for around 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep per day.
Sleep disorders like sleep apnea, waking up regularly, or even snoring can all have a negative impact on your sleep, do you should talk with your doctor if you are experiencing these issues.
Tips for Improving Your Sleep Habits
Struggling with difficulty sleeping? Not sure how to improve your sleep schedule? Here are a few easy suggestions for getting your sleep back on track to support health brain function and better memory building.
- Go to sleep and wake up at the same times every day. Consistency in your sleep patterns is hugely beneficial to building good sleep habits, both mentally (telling yourself it’s time to sleep) and physically (letting your body know it’s time to sleep).
- Create a good sleeping space for yourself. Make sure your bedroom or sleeping area is dark, quiet, and at the right temperature while you sleep. This will help your body fall asleep and stay asleep better.
- Avoid large meals and caffeine before bedtime. Going to sleep with a full stomach could make it difficult to fall asleep. World renowned neurologist, Dr. Dale Bredesen, suggests that you should finish your last meal 3 hours prior to sleep.
- Avoid screentime before and during bedtime. Try to give your eyes (and mind) a break from smartphones, TV, and computers right before falling asleep.
- Exercise during the day. Exercise and regular physical activity offer significant benefits to brain health already and can help you fall asleep more easily at night.
Sleep is Just One Factor in Protecting Your Memory
Keeping your sleep patterns on the right track is highly beneficial to your memory and your overall brain health—especially when combined with other healthy habits that can support your mental acuity and improve your overall brain performance.
If you’re focused on boosting your brainpower and preventing the slide into subjective cognitive decline, especially as you get older, good sleep habits are a great addition to any brain-boosting regimen. When incorporated into a healthy, brain-focused lifestyle, good sleep patterns could be highly beneficial to keeping your memory sharp for years to come.