Medically reviewed by
Dacelin St Martin, MD
Triple board-certified in Sleep Medicine,
Internal Medicine, and Pediatrics.
As you age, the body undergoes several natural changes that affect daily productivity and quality of life.
One such change is the brain’s ability to form and retain memories. Additionally, aging can affect your ability to get adequate or quality sleep, eventually affecting your memory.
How Aging Affects Sleep
Research suggests that sleep is instrumental in adults’ cognitive functioning; however, sleep quality and quantity change significantly as we age. Consequently, older adults do not sleep as well as younger adults, leading to a change in sleep patterns.
Hormones & Trouble Sleeping
Aging causes frequent arousals from sleep during the night and earlier in the morning. As the body ages, it doesn’t produce the same amount of growth hormone, and as such, there’s a reduction in the amount of deep sleep we experience.
Human growth hormone (hGH) is produced within the pituitary gland, and it is responsible for growth regulation. It contributes to several other bodily processes, such as metabolism. hGH production is also linked to stress, exercise, nutrition, and sleep.
One study reviewed the effect of growth hormone replacement therapy on sleep in 14 subjects with a growth hormone deficiency. After receiving hGH therapy for four months, sleep disturbances previously observed in untreated patients were partially reversed.
Secretion of the sleep hormone, melatonin, also markedly declines as a person ages. Lower melatonin levels lead to fragmented sleep, causing you to awaken more frequently during the night.
In some instances in the aged, there’s little variation between daytime and nighttime melatonin levels. Alternately, phase advancement in melatonin levels can be found in the elderly, causing earlier than normal sleep time, leading to a sleep disorder called advanced sleep-wake phase disorder (ASWPD).
A deficit in melatonin production can be due to pathophysiological changes to the circadian pacemaker or impeded neurotransmission of melatonin to the pineal gland.
The transition between sleep and waking up is often abrupt, with far less time being spent in deep sleep than younger adults. Older people can awaken three or four times each night on average because less time is spent in deep sleep.
Aging gives rise to many health-related conditions that can indirectly or directly affect sleep:
- Nocturia causes one to wake up during the night to urinate frequently, leading to reduced sleep time and quality
- Chronic Pain causes discomfort, affecting one’s ability to fall asleep or remain asleep
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease / Congestive Heart Failure affects breathing, resulting in anxiety or breathlessness, causing sleeplessness 
Sleep Deprivation & Memory
Here are some signs and symptoms of age-related memory issues:
- Asking the same questions repeatedly
- Difficulty following directions or learning new things
- Forgetting or confusion about people, time, and places
- Difficulty following a conversation
Age-related forgetfulness is common and manifests typically as misplaced items or a forgotten name of a person or place. These are memory lapses, and they tend to occur more often as aging progresses. Sleep is necessary for cognition, especially for memory consolidation and maintenance.
As a result, if a person is affected by sleep disorders due to aging, it may indicate dementia, and sleep disorders are usually quite prevalent in neurodegenerative diseases. One study outlined that working memory and the formation of new memories both decline during healthy aging. 
Three Causes of Age-Related Memory Loss
- A part of the brain known as the hippocampus often deteriorates with age. It is directly involved in the development and retrieval of memories.
- As aging occurs, the blood flow to the brain becomes reduced, resulting in memory impairment and causing a decline in cognitive skills.
- There are structures within the brain that decline with age, which are instrumental in repairing and protecting brain cells and stimulating the growth of nerves.[7-8]
Tips for Sleep & the Mind
There are several ways to work at maintaining a sharp memory. Some of these are geared toward improving sleep, and some are for directly strengthening cognitive function.
1) Target the Brain
When you need to build physical strength, a workout is used. Well, it’s the same for building and maintaining cognitive function; there is a need to keep the brain active to combat memory loss from aging. Here are some brain exercises to try:
- Play games that require critical thinking, like chess or bridge as playing games that are new to you will drive cognitive use even more.
- Learn new things. Learning requires the use of the brain and memory. That’s why the more one learns, the stronger the memory gets.
- Reading content with new words and information unfamiliar to oneself is another method to improve memory.
2) Improving Sleep
As aging can affect the ability to sleep, and there is no way to slow or reverse the aging process, the next best thing is to improve the quality and amount of sleep one gets.
Sleep helps the brain restore itself and aids with consolidating memories. Here are some ways to enhance proper sleep:
- A cup of warm milk before bed increases sleepiness because it contains a sedative-like amino acid
- Avoid stimulants, like caffeine 3 or 4 hours before bed, no tea, coffee, chocolate, soda drinks
- Avoid napping
- Exercise regularly each day
- Avoid TV, computer, phones, and games before sleep
- Practice relaxation techniques, such as meditation at bedtime
- Go to bed at the same time every night and wake at the same time each morning
- Use the bed only for sleep or intimate activity 
Sleep, aging, and memory are closely interrelated, and as such, as one gets older, one tends to have difficulty maintaining consolidated sleep, resulting in memory impairment.
Medical experts recommend engaging in sleep-inducing and memory-boosting activities to downplay the effects of aging on sleep quality and cognitive function.
- Scullin, M. K., & Bliwise, D. L. (2015). Sleep, Cognition, and Normal Aging. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(1), 97–137. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4302758/
- Brinkman, J. E., Muhammad Ali Tariq, Leavitt, L., & Sandeep Sharma. (2021, May 7). Physiology, Growth Hormone. Nih.gov; StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482141/
- Morselli, L. L., Nedeltcheva, A., Leproult, R., Spiegel, K., Martino, E., Legros, J.-J., Weiss, R. E., Mockel, J., Van Cauter, E., & Copinschi, G. (2013). Impact of GH replacement therapy on sleep in adult patients with GH deficiency of pituitary origin. European Journal of Endocrinology, 168(5), 763–770. https://doi.org/10.1530/eje-12-1037
- Mander, B. A., Winer, J. R., & Walker, M. P. (2017). Sleep and Human Aging. Neuron, 94(1), 19–36. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5810920/
- Stepnowsky, C. J., & Ancoli-Israel, S. (2008). Sleep and Its Disorders in Seniors. Sleep Medicine Clinics, 3(2), 281–293.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2516307/
- Pace-Schott, E. F., & Spencer, R. M. C. (2015). Sleep-dependent memory consolidation in healthy aging and mild cognitive impairment. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 25, 307–330. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24652608/
- National Institute on Aging. (2018). Understanding Memory Loss. https://order.nia.nih.gov/sites/default/files/2018-02/Understanding-Memory-Loss.pdf
- Neurocognitive Disorders. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. https://dsm.psychiatryonline.org/doi/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596.dsm17
- Dumas, J. A. (2017). Strategies for Preventing Cognitive Decline in Healthy Older Adults. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 62(11), 754–760. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5697626/
- Tamrat, R., Huynh-Le, M.-P., & Goyal, M. (2013). Non-Pharmacologic Interventions to Improve the Sleep of Hospitalized Patients: A Systematic Review. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 29(5), 788–795. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4000341/