Mothers’ sleep deficits and cognitive performance: Moderation by stress and age

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There are well-known associations between stress, poor sleep, and cognitive deficits, but little is known about their interactive effects, which the present study explored in a sample of mothers of toddlers. Since certain types of cognitive decline start during the 20s and continue into later ages, we also explored whether mothers’ age interacted with stress and sleep in the prediction of cognitive functioning. We hypothesized that poorer sleep [measured using one week of 24-hour wrist actigraphy data] and having more chronic stressors [e.g., life events, household chaos, work/family role conflict] would be linked with poorer cognitive performance [both executive function and standardized cognitive ability tasks], and that the interactive combination of poorer sleep and more stressors would account for the effect. We also explored whether this process operated differently for younger versus older women. In a socioeconomically and geographically diverse community sample of 227 women with toddler-age children [age, M = 32.73 yrs, SD = 5.15 yrs], poorer cognitive performance was predicted by greater activity during the sleep period, shorter sleep duration, and lower night-to-night consistency in sleep; it was not associated with higher levels of stress. The interactive effects hypothesis was supported for sleep activity [fragmented sleep] and sleep timing [when mothers went to bed]. The combination of more exposure to stressors and frequent night waking was particularly deleterious for older women’s performance. For younger women, going to bed late was associated with poorer performance if they were experiencing high levels of stress; for those experiencing low levels of stress, going to bed late was associated with better performance.

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