November 29, 2014

The Surprising Reason You Can’t Find Your Keys

Always losing your keys? Have a terrible sense of direction? Poor sleep may be to blame, finds new research from New York University Langone Medical Center.

According to the study, when sleep apnea disturbs rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, it impairs your spatial memory—responsible for recalling where things are.

Even if you don’t have the disorder, which causes people to stop breathing for short periods during sleep, listen up: Researchers say anything that messes with your REM stage—like insomnia, certain medications, or being a new parent—would probably have the same effect.

In the study, researchers recruited 18 apnea patients who used machines to help them breathe at night. While the subjects slept, the scientists turned the machines down during their REM stages, allowing apnea to screw with that part of their sleep cycles. In the morning, the participants performed worse than they had the day before on a video game that tested their abilities to navigate mazes.

How come? REM sleep may be crucial to the process of forming new spatial memories, like traveling to a new restaurant or making your way through a maze, says study author Andrew Varga, M.D., Ph.D., a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center. The theory is that your brain “replays” your experiences of the day while you snooze, which helps you remember them, he says.

When your spatial memory is impaired, you’ll lose your keys, forget where you parked your car, and have trouble finding your way home if there’s a detour on your usual route, Dr. Varga says.

The good news: You’re not losing your mind—and the fix is easy.

First, consider whether you may have sleep apnea, which is often most severe during REM sleep, Dr. Varga says. See a sleep physician if you think the disorder may be the culprit. The classic signs are snoring, gasping for breath in the middle of the night, and feeling tired even if you think you slept long enough.

Otherwise, do all you can to encourage good REM sleep, says Dr. Varga. That means getting at least 7 hours in the sack, taking a break from electronics for an hour before bed, and keeping to a consistent sleep schedule. (No dozing until noon on Sunday!) 

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