Adequate sleep is essential for the health of the immune system, cardiovascular system and metabolic response. Sleep is also important for older people’s brains. The key seems to lie in synchronized brain waves.
Why Are Synchronized Brain Waves Important?
Research published in the journal Neuron reports that as people age, their brains are less likely to synchronize brain wave rhythms during deep sleep (Helfrich et al, Neuron, online Dec. 14, 2017). Deep sleep is also known as non-rapid eye movement sleep. This coordination of brain waves appears to be critical to consolidating memories. One author, Dr. Matt Walker, describes the phenomenon of not-quite-synchronization as “a drummer that’s perhaps just one beat off the rhythm.”
Young People and Brain Waves:
The researchers started with 20 young people who were asked to learn 120 word pairs. After their session, they slept while the scientists monitored their brain waves. Upon awakening the following morning, they were tested again on the word pairs. Those who did best had had the most perfect coordination between two types of brain waves called slow waves and spindles.
Older People’s Brain Waves:
When the research team tested 32 people in their 60s and 70s, they found that the brain waves were not as well coordinated. However, those with more synchronized brain waves did better at remembering their previously learned word pairs.
The scientists were able to pinpoint the source of the problem: atrophy in the part of the brain responsible for deep sleep. Unfortunately, such atrophy is a common feature of aging. The scientists are now planning to see whether they can help get those brain waves re-synchronized with a magnetic or electrical pulse.