Link Between Poor Sleep and Poor Learning in Older Adults Investigated

Dec 22, 2009 by Rebecca Spencer

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst are trying to decode why aging prevents sleep from enhancing memory. Rebecca Spencer, assistant professor of psychology, says she is trying to isolate the stage of sleep that provides the learning benefit and to discover more about the overall role sleep plays in learning.

Spencer, who is the director of the Cognition and Action Lab in the UMass Amherst department of psychology, says one key to understanding the sleep benefit in learning may be that as people age, they sleep less and some critical stages of sleep are interrupted more frequently. This suggests that it is not a change in the overall quantity of sleep that reduces the benefits sleep conveys on memory, but rather to the quality of specific sleep stages that makes the difference.

Motor learning, the processes underlying learning to play tennis, golf or the piano, is boosted during stage two of non-REM sleep (nREM-2), Spencer says. While older adults often sleep less than when they were young, nREM-2 is preserved and may even increase. The downside, however, is that this stage of sleep is interrupted more in . Older adults are defined in the study as being 54 to 80 years old.

“When you sleep, the brain replays the ‘movie’ from your day and we believe this is how sleep improves memory. As we grow old, that movie might play a bit longer, but it is also interrupted more frequently,” says Spencer. Current research points to the need for continuity in nREM-2 sleep to generate the sleep benefit, she says. Spencer and her colleagues plan to conduct further studies to explore the broader role of sleep in the memory impairments commonly experiences by older adults.

“We’re beginning to look at the role of sleep on ‘’ tasks,” says Spencer. One area in particular is . The advantage sleep has on storing memories is enhanced if the memory has emotional importance. In younger people, sleep primes those memories for storage before neutral memories. “We want to see if neutral and emotional memories are benefited by sleep in .”

Younger people appear to be better able to process and store strongly emotional memories than older people, according to Spencer. The reason for this isn’t clear, but may again be linked the type and intensity of sleep they experience and the fact that young people tend to have longer and deeper sleep. Another factor may be that young people have stronger emotional responses to daily events, something older people don’t do because they have more experience dealing with upsetting or even uplifting events.

Spencer says her research on both the boost from sleep and the ordering of memories during sleep suggests there is much to learn about why we sleep and the functions of various stages of .

Explore further: Religious music brings benefit to seniors' mental health

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Sleep disturbances among the elderly linked to suicide

Jun 14, 2007

Self-reported sleep complaints among the elderly serve as a risk factor for completed suicide, according to a research abstract that will be presented Thursday at SLEEP 2007, the 21st Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional ...

Sleep may be important in regulating emotional responses

Jun 11, 2009

According to a new study, sleep selectively preservers memories that are emotionally salient and relevant to future goals when sleep follows soon after learning. Effects persist for as long as four months after the memory ...

Sleep gives way for work and play

Aug 31, 2007

U.S. workers squeeze more hours into their workday and still find time to play by cutting back on sleep, a new study found.

Sleep enforces the temporal sequence in memory

Apr 18, 2007

We have usually quite strong memories of past events like an exciting holiday or a jolly birthday party. However it is not clear how the brain keeps track of the temporal sequence in such memories: did Paul spill a glass ...

Recommended for you

Religious music brings benefit to seniors' mental health

Apr 18, 2014

A new article published online in The Gerontologist reports that among older Christians, listening to religious music is associated with a decrease in anxiety about death and increases in life satisfaction, self-e ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cancer stem cells linked to drug resistance

Most drugs used to treat lung, breast and pancreatic cancers also promote drug-resistance and ultimately spur tumor growth. Researchers at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have discovered ...

Finnish inventor rethinks design of the axe

(Phys.org) —Finnish inventor Heikki Kärnä is the man behind the Vipukirves Leveraxe, which is a precision tool for splitting firewood. He designed the tool to make the job easier and more efficient, with ...

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.