How Depression and Sleep Impairment Affect Executive Function

Lack of sleep can make anyone moody. Fatigue can create a feeling of mental sluggishness and cause people to have difficulty completing simple cognitive tasks. But do unrested people with depression have sharper declines in cognitive functioning than those without depression? That was the question that Christine Sutter of the University of Zurich in Switzerland sought to answer in a recent study. Sleep problems have been shown to contribute to many psychological and physical ailments. As people age, they tend to experience more difficulties with sleep. Likewise, cognitive functioning declines with age. Although these relationships have been studied in depth, few studies have examined how depression moderates the effect of sleep disturbance on executive functions such as memory, cognitive speed, and processing in older adults.

Sutter focused on adults over the age of 61. She enlisted 107 adults with and without depression and assessed their sleep patterns using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. The participants completed a series of tasks that gauged their executive function processing, speed, and memory recall. Sutter found that the participants with more significant depressive symptoms and sleep problems had more difficulty with the cognitive tasks than those with fewer depressive symptoms and more moderate sleep problems. Although many executive function domains were impacted by depression and sleep disturbances, memory recall pertaining to specific episodes was not. This suggests that sleep deprivation weakens higher-order executive functions, especially in people who have depression.

Sleep problems can cause problems with mood regulation. Therefore, the depressive symptoms in this sample of participants could be exacerbated by lack of sleep. Future work should examine the nuances of the sleep/mood relationship more closely. Additionally, even though psychological medicine was accounted for in this study, other medications that could influence the outcome were not. This is yet another area that must be fully explored to better understand the association between sleep disturbances, mood, and cognitive performance. Sutter notes that overall, the findings of this study demonstrate a clear link between sleep impairment and executive processing in older individuals. “However, it also seems important to consider low levels of depressive symptomatology together with sleep quality, as they appear to be interrelated,” she said.

Sutter, C., Zöllig, J., Allemand, M., Martin, M. (2012). Sleep quality and cognitive function in healthy old age: The moderating role of subclinical depression. Neuropsychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030033

© Copyright 2012 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Layne


    October 8th, 2012 at 3:25 PM

    I know that this has probably been brought up a number of tiems but since sleep deprivation and mood are so interrelated, then is there any general though about what actually causes the other? Do you become depressed as aa result of the lack of sleep or does depression itself lead to the sleep problems? Interesting subject.

  • fjhf


    October 8th, 2012 at 11:30 PM

    Don’t know what to believe from researchers these days. A swath of recent researh headlines told that sleep deprivation improves depressive symptoms in depressed individuals. Meaning among others that cognitive function also improves as depression worsens it. Now this study compares cognitive function between depressed and non depressed individuals on poor sleep, as if the two groups were otherwise equal with respect to it?

  • gARy


    October 8th, 2012 at 11:47 PM

    my mood certainly dictates my functioning ability and if sleep does influence mood in such a direct manner (never had sleep problems) then there must definitely be a link between the three. sleep helps not just the body but the mind too and I can see how it may have an effect on our functioning ability.

  • sally ferguson

    sally ferguson

    October 9th, 2012 at 4:06 AM

    When I went through an episode of depression a few years ago, I can’t tell you how much it impacted how well I slept, or did not sleep so to speak. And when I didn’t sleep I am sure that it affected how I went through every single day. It affected my work, my relationships, and how I felt about life as a whole. I got to where I felt so exhausted and tired all of the time but it’s like I never could get enough sleep to make up for that.

  • Emma


    October 10th, 2012 at 6:03 AM

    VeDHA-3 is good source to improve Cognitive Health Management. v-mega3 is good source of VeDHA-3
    it is also good to improve cardiovascular health

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.