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Posted: October 21, 2008

Study Links Sleep and Memory Problems

Elderly African-Americans who have trouble falling asleep are at higher risk of having memory problems, raising the possibility that identifying and treating sleep difficulties in the elderly of all ethnicities may help preserve their cognitive functioning, researchers say.

The study, conducted by researchers from North Carolina State University and Duke University, is the first to examine the link between sleep and cognitive functioning in older African-Americans. While focusing on members of one ethnicity for the study, its implications extend to seniors of all races.

The study shows that older African-Americans who reported having trouble falling asleep tended to do much worse on memory tests than study participants who did not have trouble falling asleep. 

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The study’s leader, NC State psychology Ph.D. student Alyssa A. Gamaldo, says that the difference was particularly apparent in tests related to “working memory,” which is the ability to multitask or do two things at once. The study examined 174 subjects between the ages of 65 and 90, with a median age of 72.

Gamaldo says the findings raise additional questions, which will have to be addressed in future research. For example, she says, “It is not clear if lack of sleep is the issue. Is it the quantity of sleep, the quality of sleep, or something else altogether?”

The study also raises questions for future research on both sleep and cognitive functioning in the elderly. The findings indicate that sleep may need to be accounted for as an influential variable in cognition studies targeting seniors, Gamaldo says. In addition, the findings show that sleep research may need to expand its focus to older adults of other ethnicities in order to fully explore the impacts of sleep problems on cognition in seniors.

“If we can better understand how sleep quantity, as well as quality, influences general cognitive functioning, perhaps we could better maintain memory throughout life -- including later in life,” Gamaldo says.

The study is scheduled to be published in the November issue of the journal Research on Aging. The study’s co-authors are Dr. Jason C. Allaire, assistant professor of psychology at NC State, and Dr. Keith E. Whitfield, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke.

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