Sleep Science

Is Sleep Loss Messing With Your Memory?

09 Apr 20194 min read

While you might 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 and 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. Over time, this 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.

Take our reaction and memory challenge

We’ve put together a collection of reaction and memory tests to demonstrate how the amount of sleep you’re getting is impacting your ability to perform basic tasks. Based on your score you’ll be told whether you’re getting the right amount of nightly rest.

You can find the full-size version of the 'Tired and Tested' challenges here.

Getting a low score? Take steps to improve your quality of sleep and give the tests another shot to see your performance improve.

The negative cognitive effects of a bad night's sleep

You might think the worst thing that can happen if you don't get enough rest is that you feel a bit rough around the edges. However,
studies have shown that everything from the performance of medical professionals to the reliability of eyewitnesses is improved by high-quality sleep.

While it's positive that we're talking more as a society about how everything from increased work stress to easier access to technology is negatively affecting how we sleep, it’s still easy to underestimate the importance of a good night's rest.

Some of the main cognitive issues you can face from under or oversleeping include:

  • Impaired critical thinking
  • Trouble with problem-solving
  • Memory issues
  • Lowered sex drive
  • Reduced reaction times

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 lack of sleep affects your reactions

Research has shown that not getting enough nightly rest can have the same effect on the body as a blood alcohol level of .08. This is 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 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 to maintaining a good 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 solving a sleep problem can lead to serious health issues

Harvard University researchers have found that if you regularly don't get enough sleep, you’re putting yourself at risk of health issues including:

  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Weight gain
  • Narrowing blood vessels

One or more of these issues can reduce the blood flow to your brain. Brain cells need plenty of oxygen and sugar to function properly so anything preventing this can cause some serious problems.

While forgetting the occasional thing might not seem like a big deal, there have been links made between a lot of poor-quality sleep and a higher chance of developing conditions such as dementia.

So, are you getting enough sleep?

Now that you’re aware of the consequences, it’s time to find out if you should rethink your approach to bedtime.

Worried you’re missing out on a good night’s rest? Or maybe you're confident that you’re a fully fledged 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.

To learn more about the importance of sleep, how work stress is affecting nightly rest in the UK and USA as well as how reading a good book can help you drift off – check out the Mattress Online blog. Or if you want to start improving your shuteye, why not try our data-driven Sleep Soundtrack?