All living creatures, from plants to fireflies to humans, have an innate circadian rhythm. However, there are key differences between organisms. In addition to differences between different species, there also appear to be dramatic differences between the sexes, particularly when it comes to sleep and memory. According to new research, women suffer more consequences in regard to their ability to store and recall information when they don’t get the sleep they need.
Links Between Sleep and Memory
Most people have experienced at least one sleepless night. If you have done so, you have likely noticed that you did not perform as well the next day. People who don’t get enough sleep have a variety of cognitive effects. They score lower on tests of cognition. They suffer lower verbal skills and lower spatial recognition. In general, we just don’t think or perform as well when we are tired, which should not be surprising to anyone.
However, the greatest cognitive effects of sleeplessness appear to be in the area of memory. When we are asleep, our brain performs the essential task of consolidating memories. In this essential process, our brains organize and store information so it can be recalled later. Losing out on sleep means losing out on this important step. This in turn affects working memory, or the facts that we can recall on a day to day basis. As a result, people who are sleep deprived show significant reductions in working memory, and are less likely to recall the information that they need to go about their daily lives.
Could Sleeplessness Affect Women’s Memory More Than Men?
Although no one performs well when sleep-deprived, new research on sleep and memory suggests that women indeed may be more adversely affected than men. Scientists looked at a group of 24 people, half men and half women. They administered two extensive sets of memory testing to these people, one after a full night of sleep and one after staying up all night. The men showed no difference in working memory after just one night. The women, however, showed a significant reduction.
This study is not conclusive in itself, as it looked at a very small sample. However, it adds to a growing body of evidence that sleeplessness affects men and women differently. Although women are more likely to report insomnia, they also appear to be more likely to suffer cognitive consequences when they suffer it. This disproportionate effect on women may be compromising women’s health in a variety of ways, not just memory.
Sex Differences in Sleep
Exactly how are the sleep habits of the two sexes different? Women report needing more sleep on average than men to function optimally — around 20 minutes more per night. Researchers believe this is due to the fact that women multitask, thus using more of their brain throughout the day. There are currently ongoing studies looking at whether men who have jobs that require more multitasking and detailed analysis have similarly high sleep needs.
In addition to generally higher sleep needs, women are more likely to suffer from sleep disorders and circadian rhythm dysregulation, including insomnia. Women also report having more negative emotions such as anger and depression as a result of sleeplessness. When it comes to gender and sleep, working memory is just the beginning. Sleep, or the lack of it, can affect almost every area of our lives.
Are You Getting Enough Sleep?
Although sleep-deprived women appear to have more effects on the memory than sleep-deprived men, it is essential for both genders to get enough sleep and keep a healthy circadian rhythm. Both men and women have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease and other fatal illnesses as a result of a dysregulated circadian rhythm. In addition, both sexes are at a higher risk of car and work accidents after a sleepless night.
Modern life presents a wide range of challenges to getting the required amount of sleep. In addition to unprecedented levels of stress, modern people live with distracting devices, high levels of ambient light and other challenges to the circadian rhythm. These and other factors can make getting enough sleep difficult for many people. However, we all suffer the effects when we fail to make our health a priority.
Whether male or female, getting enough sleep appears to be crucial to our brain function in a variety of ways. Although modern life can make it difficult to get the sleep that you need, you simply cannot think or remember as well without it. Keeping your circadian rhythm on track is essential to both cognitive and physical health.