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Research reveals how sleep helps "hit the 'save button' on your memories"

Sleep impact on memory
How sleep impacts your memory 05:22

New research shows another reason why you should be getting a good night's sleep: it could help save your memory. A study  published recently in the journal Neuron found that as we age, the connection between sleep and memory formation begins to show signs of breaking down. Brain waves become unsynchronized, and because of that, the brain fails to keep new memories while we sleep.

"What we found is that in young, healthy adults, the deep-sleep brain waves are perfectly synchronized in time and that synchronization helps you essentially hit the 'save button' on your memories," Matthew Walker, who co-authored the study, told "CBS This Morning." "But as we get older those deep-sleep brain waves become mistimed."

He likens this to a drummer who is one beat off the rhythm.

"So you can't cement those memories into the brain so you end up forgetting the next morning rather than remembering," explained Walker, who is also the author the new book, "Why We Sleep: Unlocking The Power of Sleep and Dreams." 

The study included adults aged 65 and older, the age at which a marked change in the synchrony of brain rhythms has been observed. But Walker notes that people can experience deep-sleep declines beginning as early as their 30s or 40s.

That's because as we get older, we lose brain cells in the deep-sleep generating part of the brain, which sits just above the eyes in the middle of the brain.

"As you lose those brain cells, you can't generate that same depth and quality of sleep, nor can you synchronize those brain waves, either," Walker said.

The study says those synchronized brain waves are believed to enable the "information transformation necessary for long-term memory retention."

Walker and his colleagues are working to develop new electrical brain simulation technology that could resynchronize brain waves and help restore deep-sleep quality to older adults in the hopes of salvaging some aspects of learning and memory.

Experts recommend adults get at least eight hours of sleep per night.

Studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can have a wide range of negative impacts on health. For example, people who get seven hours of sleep or less are at a significantly increased risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. People who sleep six hours a night or less are also more likely to get cancer and more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime.

Walker said that sleep has a stigma attached to it and as a society, we need to change the way we view sleep.

"I think sleep has an image problem," he said. "I think we chastise people who get sufficient sleep. We give them this label of being slothful or lazy and that has to change."

That movement, he says, needs to start at the top.

"When was the last time that any government [in a] first-world nation actually had a public health campaign regarding sleep? We have them for drowsy driving. We have them for alcohol, drugs, diet," Walker said. "I think it's necessary in all developed nations and no one is doing it. We need that movement."

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