Older Adults Better Able To Tolerate Sleep Deprivation

We all realize the need for a good night’s sleep in order to function well. Sleep allows our brains to catch up with the activities of the day and sort out what is necessary to remember and what is going to be thrown out. It is during sleep that we form our long-term memories. Sleep deprivation also does damage to our working memory and cognitive performance, making it hard to do your job well or pay attention in class.

Studies have found that older adults are better at functioning with less sleep than younger people. In a presentation at the 23rd Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies, in 2009, researchers found that older adults were able to retain better memory and cognitive functioning during periods of sleep deprivation than younger adults.

The annual SLEEP meeting brings over 6,000 leading researchers from all over the world in the field of sleep medicine for three days to present and discuss new findings and medical developments related to sleep and sleep disorders. They exchange ideas and studies in a hope to understanding of the process of sleep, and in order to aid the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders such as insomnia, narcolepsy and sleep apnea.

One particular study, conducted by researchers at the UCSD/VA healthcare system in San Diego, California included 33 older adults (ages 59-82), and 27 younger adults (ages 19-38). The performance of older and younger adults was compared on three distinct cognitive tasks before and after 36 hours of sleep deprivation – cognitive performance (including working memory), verbal processing and retrieval of memory, and attention span. Results from the study found older adults were more resilient to total sleep deprivation (TSD) than their younger counterparts The younger adults showed significant decline in all three areas while that of the older adults did not change to any significant degree.

Lead researcher, Sean Drummond, PhD, believes the reason older adults performed better was because only healthy people were included from the older age group. He thinks there may have been a selection bias in choosing the older participants, while younger adults were not chosen based on health. “It may be that older adults who remain the healthiest late in life are less vulnerable to a variety of stressors, not just sleep loss,” said Drummond.

Previous findings, from this study and many others, have shown that sleep deprivation produces impaired performances in memory, cognitive functions and attention across a variety of different tests. According to Drummond, sacrificing sleep to study or work is a “false-trade off.”

About the author:

Ron White is a two-time U.S.A. Memory Champion and memory training expert. As a memory keynote speaker he travels the world to speak before large groups or small company seminars, demonstrating his memory skills and teaching others how to improve their memory, and how important a good memory is in all phases of your life. His CDs and memory products are also available online at BrainAthlete.com.


Science Daily – Older Adults Less Affected By Sleep Deprivation Than Younger Adults During Cognitive Performance: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090610091333.htm

American Psychological Association – Sleep patterns and aging: Comparison of older adults with and without insomnia complaints: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/pag/4/3/290/

American Academy of Sleep Medicine — Older Adults Are Less Affected by Sleep Deprivation than Younger Adults During Cognitive Performance: http://www.aasmnet.org/articles.aspx?id=1322


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