Lack of Sleep Side Effects: The Link Between Sleep Deprivation, Brain Damage, and Memory

Lack of sleep side effects can be quite serious and wreak havoc on your mind and body.

lack of sleep side effects

Many people get less sleep than they need, whether it is due to insomnia, sleep disorders, or simply a busy schedule.

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I am someone who requires a lot of sleep to get by. With a history of migraine headaches and chronic fatigue syndrome, getting regular sleep – and lots of it – is important to me and helps me feel better. I have many friends, however, who can get by on four or five hours of sleep on a regular basis, and that astounds me. The truth is, lack of sleep is all too common; many people get less sleep than they need, whether it is due to insomnia, sleep disorders, or simply a busy schedule. If you are one of those people, getting more sleep is a must, especially to keep your mind sharp. Lack of sleep side effects can be serious. Sleep deprivation, brain damage, and memory are all likely intimately connected.

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Sleep and Dementia

It is extremely common for someone with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia to report sleep disturbances or sleep disorders. And in many cases, the sleep problems can make symptoms of these conditions worse.[1,2] But are sleep problems simply a common problem with aging and a symptom caused by neurodegeneration? Or could sleep problems actually cause neurodegeneration in the first place?

Do Lack of Sleep Side Effects Include Memory Loss?

There is an abundance of research suggesting that sleep problems may contribute to cognitive impairment and memory loss later in life. Researchers know that sleep is extremely important for healthy cognitive function, and this isn’t surprising. When we are sleep deprived, it can be hard to think straight or focus on anything. There are several studies demonstrating the link between reduced sleep quality and poorer cognitive performance. But sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have more long lasting effects, raising your risk for memory problems with age.[3]

Studies show that people diagnosed with insomnia are at a higher risk for dementia, for example. In fact, people with insomnia were twice as likely to develop dementia over a three-year follow up study than those without insomnia.[3,4]

Sleep disorders, like sleep-disordered breathing, are also often associated with reduced cognitive function.[3] In one study, women who had sleep-disordered breathing were much more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or dementia compared to women without the disorder.[5]

Sleep Disturbances May Actually Alter the Brain Itself

Sleep deprivation may cause direct brain damage. A recent study published in the journal Neurology showed that people who spent less time in slow wave sleep had more generalized brain atrophy. Further, people who got less oxygen as they slept (due to sleep disordered breathing) had higher levels of microinfarcts (small areas of brain damage).[6] There is also evidence that insomnia is associated with reduced brain volumes.[3]

Explaining Link Between Sleep Deprivation, Brain Damage, and Cognitive Function

There are numerous ways that disrupted or disordered sleep may cause problems in memory and cognition. Some of the suggested mechanisms include a variety of theories:

  • Sleep is required for memory consolidation, so missing out on sleep can interfere with memory formation.
  • Sleep deprivation can increase amyloid-β concentrations.
  • Sleep problems cause disruptions in circadian rhythms and the hormone melatonin, which are important for proper cognitive function.
  • Sleep disorders like sleep-disordered breathing can cause lack of oxygen while sleeping, which may damage the brain.
  • Insomnia may cause depression, which can in turn impair cognition.[3]

What to Do If You Have Trouble Sleeping or If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep

If you aren’t getting plenty of good quality sleep, it is time to do something about it. First, determine whether your daily habits or routines are interfering with your sleep, or whether you might have a sleep disorder. If you think that your sleep problems are a sign of a deeper problem, like a sleep disorder, consider visiting a sleep specialist. They can help you to diagnose your condition and determine the best course of action to treat your symptoms. Browse the UHN website for a variety of remedies for sleep disorders, like this post on How to Stop Sleep Apnea – 4 Non CPAP Remedies or this one about 3 Natural Remedies for Insomnia.

If you just don’t set aside enough time to sleep, rethink your schedule and your habits. Prioritize your time, allowing time for chores, leisure, and socializing without staying up too late. Try eating dinner earlier than usual and getting tasks out of the way before you eat. After dinner, do something that is relaxing to help you wind down for bed. Be sure to avoid bright screens and blue light before bed. Sleep might not seem important to you now, but your brain will thank you later if you make it a priority.

Share Your Experience

Do you have sleep issues? Do you have a diagnosed sleep disorder? Do you find that your mind and memory take a toll? What are your tips for avoiding lack of sleep side effects?

Originally published in July 2015, this post has been updated.


[1] Psychogeriatrics. 2015 Mar;15(1):65-74.

[2] Neurol Sci. 2014 Dec;35(12):1955-62.

[3] Lancet Neurol. 2014 Oct;13(10):1017-28.

[4] PLoS One. 2012;7(11):e49113.

[5] JAMA. 2011 Aug 10;306(6):613-9.

[6] Neurology. 2015 Jan 20;84(3):296-303.

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Comments
  • I am 65 years old and have suffered from chronic insomnia for over 30 years. I have not had a proper nights sleep for as long as I can remember. Although I have tried various medications, nothing has really helped. It has now got to the point where I am literally awake all night, every night. This has led to a lot of other problems in my life including depression, and has also affected my memory, especially over recent years. I wonder if there can be an organic reason for this problem, and what, if anything, could be a solution

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