Tired & tested: is sleep loss messing with your memory?
While you may feel physically fine despite falling short of the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep, your cognitive ability may not be holding up as well.
The issues caused by sleep deprivation include:
- Difficulty concentrating leading to impaired performance
- Memory & cognition problems
- Health problems including diabetes and high blood pressure
- An increased risk of causing accidents or injuring yourself
Sleep loss can impact your handling of day-to-day challenges both at home and in the workplace and, over time, can lead to more long-lasting health issues. In fact, the memory loss that many take as part and parcel of getting older is now being linked to lack of sleep over a number of years.
The negative cognitive effects of a bad night’s sleep
While there is more of a conversation surrounding how everything from increased stress in the workplace to easier access to technology is leaving us lacking in the slumber department these days, it’s still easy to underestimate sleep’s importance.
Everything from the performance of medical professionals to the reliability of eyewitnesses relies on a good night’s sleep so you can be sure that if you’re not getting the rest you need, your ability to perform tasks and recall information will suffer.
How a lack of sleep affects your reactions
Studies have shown that not getting enough nightly rest can have the same effect on the body as a blood alcohol level of .08 – the point at which you’re classed as legally intoxicated.
According to a University of Michigan study, this can decrease your reaction time by around 120 milliseconds. While this may not sound like much, if you’re driving a car at 70mph, you would need an additional 12ft to react to any hazards which could be the difference between life and death.
To further put this into perspective, the average reaction time to visual stimulus is already 250 milliseconds, so anything that increases this leaves you at risk of injury or, at the very least unable to stop yourself spilling your morning coffee.
Why sleep is crucial for your memory
Sleep does more than help to sharpen your reactions, it’s also closely linked to our ability to store and recall events and facts accurately. Memories themselves vary in function…
- Fact-based (i.e. remembering a sequence of numbers)
- Episodic (based on life events such as meeting your significant other)
- Procedural or Instructional (skill-based memory such as riding a bike or playing an instrument)
Three functions must occur for a memory to be formed:
Both the acquisition and recall functions take place when you are awake. However, experts believe that a good amount of quality sleep is required to consolidate memory, regardless of its type. If you’re under or over-sleeping, your brain will have a tough time absorbing and remembering new information.
Memory testing studies show that after a good night’s sleep, or even a quick snooze, people perform better, whether on a test, at work, competing in sports, or performing music.
Not addressing sleep issues can lead to serious health problems
Harvard University researchers have found that if you are frequently deprived of sleep, you’re putting yourself at risk of health problems including diabetes, high blood pressure, and narrowing blood vessels.
One or more of these issues can reduce blood flow to the brain. Your brain cells need plenty of oxygen and sugar to function properly so anything preventing this affects their ability to work properly.
While forgetting the occasional thing might not seem like a big deal, there have been links made between persistent poor-quality sleep and the likelihood of conditions such as dementia.
Are you getting enough sleep?
Now that you’re aware of the consequences, it’s time to find out if you could do with rethinking your approach to bedtime.
Think you’re missing out on a good night’s rest? Confident that you’re a sleep superstar?
Take our memory and reaction tests at the top of this page to find out how the amount of shuteye you’re getting is affecting your cognitive performance.