Too Old To Run for Congress?
Old Age and Daily Routine

Sleep and Short-Term Memory

category_bug_journal2.gif Old people regularly lament our short-term memory lapses and we often do it with rueful jokes as if we are whistling past the graveyard of brain cells. An example from a story here in 2009 when I lived in Maine:

”ITEM: I go the kitchen for a glass of water. I am momentarily distracted because the cat wants a pet and then I return to the library before I recall that I am thirsty.

“ITEM: I bundle myself into my winter outdoor gear and walk the six blocks to the local mini-grocery for a single item – a loaf of their excellent sour dough bread. While I’m there, the owner offers me a taste of a new cheese he has received. I buy a chunk and return home without the bread...

“Basically, these days, I do many things twice,” I wrote, in an attempt to lighten the fear too many of such incidents incur.

In the four years since I posted that, my short-term memory has gotten even shorter. It appears now that it is possible, in the second or two it takes to pick up a pen, to forget what the reminder is that I had intended to jot down.

That quote above was the lead-in to a study I was reporting that compared the memories of young and old people and showed, said the researchers, that elder brains have trouble ignoring extraneous information which results in overload and, therefore, dropped bits of information.

It was a reassuring study implying that if elders focused more carefully and indulged in less multi-tasking, our forgetfulness might be alleviated or, at least, reduced.

Now comes a new young/old brain study reported in The New York Times on Sunday suggesting something different:

”...that structural brain changes occurring naturally over time interfere with sleep quality, which in turn blunts the ability to store memories for the long term.”

Alarmingly, those “structural brain changes” involve loss of brain tissue [emphasis is mine]:

”In the study, the research team took brain images from 19 people of retirement age and from 18 people in their early 20s. It found that a brain area called the medial prefrontal cortex, roughly behind the middle of the forehead, was about one-third smaller on average in the older group than in the younger one — a difference due to natural atrophy over time, previous research suggests.”

The tests involved word memorization. Each age group was asked to recall the same sets of words and after about 25 minutes, the young group outscored the old group in recall by about 25 percent. But the bigger difference occurred after a night's sleep:

”On a second test, given in the morning, the younger group outscored the older group by about 55 percent.

“The estimated amount of atrophy in each person roughly predicted the difference between his or her evening and morning scores, the study found. Even seniors who were very sharp at night showed declines after sleeping.

“The analysis showed that the differences were due not to changes in capacity for memories, but to differences in sleep quality.”

Nothing can be done about the pre-frontal brain atrophy, but there may be other options:

”The findings suggest that one way to slow memory decline in aging adults is to improve sleep, specifically the so-called slow-wave phase, which constitutes about a quarter of a normal night’s slumber...

“ least two groups are experimenting with electrical stimulation as a way to improve deep sleep in older people.

“By placing electrodes on the scalp, scientists can run a low current across the prefrontal area, essentially mimicking the shape of clean, high-quality slow waves.

“The result: improved memory, at least in some studies. 'There are also a number of other ways you can improve sleep, including exercise,' said Ken Paller, a professor of psychology and the director of the cognitive neuroscience program at Northwestern University, who was not involved in the research.”

I hope you noted the important reference to exercise in the last paragraph.

I try to counter my short-term memory holes with lists and to a reasonable degree, they work. It's those five-second walks from one room to another during which the goal disappears from my brain that are most irritating.

I'd sure like to find some that electrical stimulation therapy to improve my sleep.

You can read The Times story here. The full study in Nature Neuroscience is behind a pay firewall.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: Proof of Age


I find that if I don't cough all night, I sleep pretty well.

I sleep so well I marvel at it.

And amazing clear dreams.

Lists help me. A lot.

Or saying things out loud like "4 items to remember in the kitchen - here they are" and I list them off.

Living alone helps this process :)


I am now taking an antihistamine that puts me out like a light. I will see if I remember more in the coming weeks.

I've got a little list, I've got a little list..."

I keep notepaper on the island in the kitchen to write down ideas and chores as they come to me, in between sips of my morning coffee, and later,I move them next to the computer, but I can't always decipher my chicken scratch.

I need sleeping aids too otherwise I would not be able to get two full hours of sleep each night, if that.

I walk the dog about two miles each day but like you I spend a lot of time in front of the computer and need to force myself to get up and walk it off or ride my bike around the block.

I am relieved to know there is a correlation between my insomnia and not being able to remember words when I write the next morning. Alzheimer's is always lurking in the background when I fail to remember a name I know perfectly well. I know I don't have Alzheimer's but still ----.

I was upset by this study, too. I do not sleep well at all, needing to get up several times during the night to pee. Does not bode well for the future, does it?

About to turn 70 with all the memory and sleep problems described above, I spent the last few years watching my mother's memory disappear. No personality change, no loss of intelligence nor sense of humor, but every communication had to be in the moment. I teased her about becoming Buddhist without trying. She was frustrated by it, but took it in stride. From that I learned that one can live in peace without memory. It's total loss hugely narrows what one can do (ultimately very little) but it's a long process and worrying about it doesn't help with sleep or memory (lecture to myself).

The little things I forget tend to be those that are so repetitive from day to day that I don't give them any thought. Prime example, feeding the dog. I usually feed her when I go into the kitchen to start dinner. But five minutes later she's sitting expectantly beside her empty bowl and I can't for the life of me remember if I just fed her ... or if I'm remembering feeding her yesterday. I wouldn't be concerned except that I don't want her to go hungry ... or get fat.

I sound like wisewebwoman. Wonderful dreams, cleansing sleep. The only thing is, I generally only sleep maybe 5 hours a night. Then I get a little sleepy at around 3pm, but usually don't succumb to it.

I have trouble calling names to mind, especially if I haven't seem that person for a few years. Old age is an adventure, sometimes a scary one.

Yes, exactly as Darlene said, it is a relief to know there is a direct connection between these two factors. Starting today, I am going to design a mini-study to look for this same correlation in myself on a day-to-day basis. As a matter of fact I did notice that my mind felt crisper this morning than it has in a while and I also slept better last night than I have in several nights. Can't draw any conclusions yet of course, but it will be fascinating to keep track.

Since my mom has started keeping lists, our phone conversations have gotten longer. She keeps a list of things to talk with me about. I should be so organized!

OK, now what was I going to write? Oh yeah. I have the same problem as you, Ronni, remembering what I was planning to do five seconds ago. I see something on TV, want to look it up online, and by the time my laptop wakes up, I forgot what I was going to look for! I seldom sleep well. Maybe more exercise will help with sleep.

Please research the use of your antihistamine as a sleep aid.

From what I've studied, the antihistamine works by blocking neurotransmitters. Yes, you sleep...but at what cost to your memory?

Oh my
nice to know I am normal
in these 3 score and 10 plus years.
Usually sleep very well but
not so for months.
Also seems my list get longer so I do not forget...
Thought is was a side affect
of going off prednisone ?
Now I have the thought
maybe not...

Try this: before you go into the other room, say to yourself out loud what you're looking for.

And if that doesn't work, try waiting quietly for 60 seconds to see if it comes to you...and if that doesn't work, well ---- DAMN, I forgot!

I must admit that reading how others suffer from STMD (short-term memory deficiency) cheers me up. Lately I was starting to get the old Alzheimers Blues:
Ol Alzheimer"s got me,
head's like seive
Fetch me my coffin
Aint got no time left to live..."

Like in the "Exotic Marigold Hotel":
"Things will always work out in the end
And if they don't work out-
It's not the end!

Since alzheimer's runs in my family, I feel a tinge of panic every time I forget something. It's reassuring to read that there are other factors that could be at work. I do notice my memory problems are worse when I'm stressed. But of course, stress disrupts my sleep so I was probably reading that wrong.

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