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Sleep well for a better memory

Prompted by questions I received during a presentation I call "Memory Difficulties: Should I Be Worried?" I was encouraged to do a closer examination of the relationship between sleep and memory. I've always included the importance of seven to eight hours of sleep each night (make that "restorative" sleep) in any discussion of aging memory, but I'd never had a group (there were more than 50 people in the room) who were quite as inquisitive about the relationship between sleeping well and remembering better.

Commenting hands went up throughout my remarks. These querying individuals had research-based insights and compelling stories about how to achieve a totally blissful night of rest. One of the ideas offered (it came from a woman who looked extremely well-rested) involved saying a fond good-bye to your bed in the morning, She advised patting the pillow lovingly, promising aloud to return to its softness and comfort that night.

The audience had so many comments about sleeping well, I was almost derailed from talking about other things that affect memory as we age. For the record, that list includes eating a colorful, nutrient-dense diet, getting daily physical activity and maximizing social connectedness.

But, let's get back to the topic at hand. The querying group to whom I spoke was composed of Southern Oregon retirees. All (or most) were members of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI). I suspect these learning-in-retirement individuals aren't the only ones who want to assure nights of restorative rest in which memory is reaffirmed.

Some experts use the term "the memory life-cycle" (www.memory-key.com). The belief is when we sleep optimally we go through three stages (stabilization, consolidation and ultimately re-consolidation).

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 stage 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 put a hot pad in the refrigerator.

Sleeping well and thinking clearly are closely linked. Every year Johns Hopkins University puts forward White Papers on health-related topics. The 2008 publication on "Memory" (www.johnshopkinshealthalerts.com/bookstore) refers to sleep as one aspect of a "brain-friendly lifestyle." Included in their recommendations is a reference to certain medications that make you feel fuzzy-headed even if you met your sleep quota. Anticholinergic drugs (common examples include allergy, anxiety and asthma medications) can produce a fatigued, sleepy-headed feeling. (It's yet another reminder to regularly evaluate all prescription and non-prescription medications — and involve your physician and/or pharmacist).

Some memory tasks are more vulnerable to sleep deprivation. For example, one study found lack of sleep not only affects recall ability, it also increases a people's insistence they were right about a particular issue — when the facts demonstrate they were indeed wrong. Actually, I know a few people who do that on occasion. I'll try to remember to tell them about the pat-the-pillow technique.

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