Recent research has suggested that sleep problems might be a risk factor in developing Alzheimer’s, and in mild cognitive impairment. A new study adds to this gathering evidence by connecting reduced slow-wave sleep in older adults to brain atrophy and poorer learning.
The study involved 18 healthy young adults (mostly in their 20s) and 15 healthy older adults (mostly in their 70s). Participants learned 120 word- nonsense word pairs and were tested for recognition before going to bed. Their brain activity was recorded while they slept. Brain activity was also measured in the morning, when they were tested again on the word pairs.
As has been found previously, older adults showed markedly less slow-wave activity (both over the whole brain and specifically in the prefrontal cortex) than the younger adults. Again, as in previous studies, the biggest difference between young and older adults in terms of gray matter volume was found in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Moreover, significant differences were also found in the insula and posterior cingulate cortex. These regions, like the mPFC, have also been associated with the generation of slow waves.
When mPFC volume was taken into account, age no longer significantly predicted the extent of the decline in slow-wave activity — in other words, the decline in slow-wave activity appears to be due to the brain atrophy in the medial prefrontal cortex. Atrophy in other regions of the brain (precuneus, hippocampus, temporal lobe) was not associated with the decline in slow-wave activity when age was considered.
Older adults did significantly worse on the delayed recognition test than young adults. Performance on the immediate test did not predict performance on the delayed test. Moreover, the highest performers on the immediate test among the older adults performed at the same level as the lowest young adult performers — nevertheless, these older adults did worse the following day.
Slow-wave activity during sleep was significantly associated with performance on the next day’s test. Moreover, when slow-wave activity was taken into account, neither age nor mPFC atrophy significantly predicted test performance.
In other words, age relates to shrinkage of the prefrontal cortex, this shrinkage relates to a decline in slow-wave activity during sleep, and this decline in slow-wave sleep relates to poorer cognitive performance.
The findings confirm the importance of slow-wave brainwaves for memory consolidation.
All of this suggests that poorer sleep quality contributes significantly to age-related cognitive decline, and that efforts should be made to improve quality of sleep rather than just assuming lighter, more disturbed sleep is ‘natural’ in old age!
 . Prefrontal atrophy, disrupted NREM slow waves and impaired hippocampal-dependent memory in aging. Nature Neuroscience [Internet]. 2013 . Available from: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nn.3324.html