Researchers find strong links between working memory and age, sleep quality and mood
12/11/2019 // Grace Olson // Views

Working memory is an important part of a person's day-to-day activity, and numerous factors affect it. In a recent report, scientists linked three health-related factors – sleep, age and depressed mood – to working memory. Their findings, which appeared in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, focused on the qualitative and quantitative aspects of working memory and how these three factors affect them.

Effects of sleep quality, mood and age on working memory

Working memory (WM) is a part of a person's short-term memory which helps with temporarily storing and managing information. The process is often used in tasks that require a higher level of cognitive ability – including assessing situations, speaking a language and navigating a person’s surroundings.

Several studies have examined how different factors affect WM. A study in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, for instance, concluded that having an unpleasant emotional state impeded WM, especially in people who quickly become anxious. Problems in WM is one of the markers of cognitive decline and other age-related conditions.

A separate review that examined the relationship between sleep deprivation and WM affirmed that lack of sleep inhibits optimal working memory performance. The research suggested that reduced performance was due to reduced neural activation in parts of the brain related to WM.

Quantitative and qualitative memory

For Weiwei Zhang, a co-author of the current study and a psychology professor at the University of California (UC), Riverside, most studies on working memory had a piecemeal approach – they only looked at one potential factor at a time. As he and his team pointed out, these factors were, in fact, closely related.


The researchers wanted to examine how these three factors affect WM – more specifically, its qualitative and quantitative aspects. The former refers to the accuracy of memory while the latter refers to the amount of information a person recalls.

To gather data, they conducted two studies that used a short-term recall task in order to assess WM.

For the first study, they sampled 110 college students, who self-reported measures of regular sleep quality and depressed mood. Sleep and mood are often linked to reduced quantitative aspects of WM.

In the second study, they examined the qualitative relationship between WM and age. They gathered data from 31 members in the community. Ages ranged from 21 to 77 years old.

The first study revealed that poor sleep quality and depressed mood contributed to worse quantitative WM. It meant that people who slept less and had longer negative moods were less likely to store short-term memory.

As for the second study, researchers identified that age had an inverse relationship with WM precision. It meant that as a person ages, he or she is more likely to confuse details and have less accurate recollections.

Overall, the researchers determined that these three factors have dissociable effects on WM. They believed that considering multiple factors, instead of one, could help advance future interventions and treatments for WM.

How to maintain an optimal working memory

Sleep, mood and age are part of any person's life. Here are some natural tips to ensure that these three work together to maintain proper working memory:

  • Get a good night’s sleep. Good sleep contributes not only to a better mood but better working performance as well. Increase sleep quality by sticking to a sleep schedule, keeping the room cool and dark and not eating at least three hours before bedtime.
  • Try meditating. This practice helps process emotions and is known to improve mental health. Join a yoga class or conduct some research on yoga exercises at home.
  • Eat more healthy foods. These include fruits, vegetables and nuts. These are rich sources of antioxidants, which help combat oxidative stress. The symptoms of oxidative stress, like wrinkling and cognitive decline, appear with age.
  • Exercise. More physical activity boosts a person’s mood as well as his overall health. (Related: Want better working memory? Nutrition and healthy lifestyle habits play key roles in how much you remember.) has more tips to improve a person's sleep quality and mood to maintain a healthy memory.

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