Lose sleep and your memory will suffer

For a multitude of reasons, including delayed airline flights and a dead car battery, I've had very little sleep in the past week.

In fact, for several days in a row, my husband and I were awake long past midnight. Here's an illustration of how and why that happened. Envision a friendly AAA guy with a jumper cable descending from the cab of his truck in the parking lot at the airport at 3 a.m. We had just returned from what had started as an early-evening flight from San Francisco. We knew we were sleep-deprived when he issued a cheery, "Good Morning!" — and we did not even laugh.

Getting too little sleep creates havoc in the aging brain. For the record, adequate sleep is one of several aspects of having a "brain-friendly lifestyle." The list of things we need to do to stay clear-headed includes eating colorful, nutrient-dense foods, getting daily physical activity and regularly engaging in socially-connecting activities. But restorative rest, in which memory is reaffirmed, may be the most important.

Some experts describe this using the term "memory life-cycle." The belief is when we sleep we go through three stages (stabilization, consolidation and reconsolidation).

The first stage of memory-encouraging sleep is thought to be similar to clicking on "save" when you're working on your computer; the next stages can be compared to someone coming in to edit and organize your saved work so you can then move on to error-free recall the next day. Well, maybe not error-free, but you get the idea.

Did that kind of sleep happen for you last night? No? Maybe that explains why you left the interior lights of the car on for an extended period, causing the car battery to drain.

Sleeping well and thinking clearly are closely linked. Every year Johns Hopkins University puts forward a White Paper on "Memory." The 2010 publication is particularly well done (www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com/reports/memory).

Another sleep/memory researcher, Dr. Jessica D. Payne, reportedly changed her personal sleeping habits after looking at her own data. She says it this way: "We can get away with less sleep, but it has a profound effect on our cognitive abilities."

This I know. A few consecutive days without enough sleep made me fuzzy-headed and distracted. I found I was not finishing sentences. I misplaced things. And, yes, I was a little cranky. On the fourth day after the third night of too-little sleep, I lost my cell phone (twice) and turned on the coffee pot before I had put in water — or coffee.

Johns Hopkins researchers suggest, "As a rule of thumb, one hour of sleep is required for two hours of being awake." As we get older, that ratio changes and becomes closer to 45 minutes of sleep to each two hours awake. Less than that throughout a week and we accumulate a "sleep debt." And like all debts, it needs to be addressed.

Someone advised me how to deal with this. But I am not recalling exactly who that person was "… probably because I'm still cognitively compromised. But I intend to take the advice.

"There is no day so bad it cannot be fixed by a good nap."

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.

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