Willamette Gerontology Network

Sleep and Memory
Issue 2

Maximizing one’s memory ability in middle and older adulthood requires a multifaceted approach. In this short article, I will summarize recent research showing how we can maximize our memory ability. Any one suggestion won’t have a huge impact, but all together they could have a very significant effect on not only your memory ability but also your quality of life.
It turns out that about 50% of our memory ability and our chance of developing dementia is determined by genetics. So, I hope you chose your parents well, as there isn’t much we can do about our genetic make-up. But the good news is that we can largely control the other 50% that is non-genetic.

If you want to maximize your memory ability in adulthood, research shows we need to engage in the following behaviors:
1. Get adequate physical exercise. This includes aerobic activity such as walking and other activities that increase heart rate. This also includes strength or resistance training, such as lifting weights. The effects of resistance training are just now being understood, with a 2012 study showing it could lead to significant improvement in attention and concentration for people who were experiencing mild cognitive and memory problems.
2. Get adequate cognitive exercise. We have all heard of the concept Use It Or Lose It, and there is a lot of research that supports that idea. We should never stop learning and challenging ourselves. Cognitive stimulation comes in many forms, we can volunteer, fully engage our hobbies, travel, learn new skills, and engage in targeted cognitive activities. There are even some excellent website and iPads apps that can help people get targeted brain exercise.
3. Watch weight, diet, and glucose levels. Controlling weight, avoiding diabetes, and eating right could dramatically reduce the chance of having cognitive problems. There is some evidence that eating fish or a fish oil supplement can reduce one’s chance of developing dementia.
4. Stay socially engaged. Social engagement is very cognitively stimulating and is associated with a reduced likelihood of developing dementia.
5. Sleep well. Poor sleep quality and quantity can impair brain function and result in a number of physical and mental problems.
In subsequent articles, I will explore the above five factors in more detail. Ok, now it is your turn to put these suggestions into practice and take control of your brain health. 

Approximately 50% of older adults suffer form sleep problems or insomnia and this can negatively affect their memory ability, quality of life, and mood. In a 2007 study researchers found that if people miss just one night of sleep, their ability and likelihood of recognizing things they had seen since the sleepless night decreased from 86% to 74%. One might therefore infer that insomniacs who didn’t sleep much the night before would have approximately a 12% reduction in their ability to make new memories. Others researchers have found that the ability to have sustained attention is affected by lack of sleep.

Sleeping medications certainly have their place, but while they often help people fall asleep, there is evidence that they negatively affect the quality of sleep. But the good news is that there are effective non-pharmacological interventions to enhance sleep. Below you will find many of the so-called sleep hygiene recommendations.

1. Keep regular hours.
2. Exercise everyday but not in the evening. Stretching and moderate exercise in the morning seems to be most beneficial in decreasing how long it takes to fall asleep and how long people stay asleep.
3. Don't drink too much alcohol after dinner; it will impair the quality of sleep.
4. Take a nap during the day to increase daily sleep. This recommendation is different from what has been suggested during the past 30 years, but new research shows it generally increases total daily sleep duration and quality of night sleep.
5. Get more exposure to natural light during the day.
6. Avoid nicotine and caffeine, which are both CNS stimulants.
7. Unwind in the evening. "The lamb and the lion may lie down together but the lamb won't be very sleepy" (Woody Allen).  This mechanism is adaptive if there is a danger or threat, but it has had a negative affect on modern people whose lives are often full of chronic stressors.
8. Don't go to bed starved or stuffed.
9. Don't associate the bedroom with wakefulness.  Don't eat, drink, or watch television in bed.  If you can't go to sleep then get up and do something else besides worrying about not going to sleep.  
10. Don't ruminate in bed.  If you have thoughts that you would like to remember, write them down and stop thinking about them.
11. Use the ultradian cycles to predict optimal times to go to sleep.
12. Control light and thus melatonin release.
13. Be sure to make the sleeping environment as comfortable as possible (e.g., bedding, temperature)
14. Make sure the sleeping environment meets your standards of tidiness.
15. Try to reduce noise exposure during the night.
16. Engage in mindfulness meditation

Dr. Rob’s Science Connection -- Enhancing Brain Health

Maximizing Memory Ability in Older Adulthood
Issue 1

Western Oregon's Professor Making Big Strides


Memory, Aging, and Cognitive Stimulation

Dr. Rob Winningham,is a full Professor and Chair of the Behavioral Sciences Division at Western Oregon University (WOU) where he manages both the Psychology and Gerontology Departments. Before beginning at WOU, Dr. Winningham received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Baylor University. In addition to publishing many peer-reviewed articles in the area of human memory, Dr. Winningham makes frequent television and radio appearances and has given well over 600 invited presentations about memory and aging at various conferences and workshops.