The afternoon nap gets a bad rap.
Some see a siesta as a sign of laziness, low energy, or even illness. But a new study suggests that afternoon sleep may make you mentally sharper if you’re over age 60. Older adults who took afternoon naps scored higher on a cognitive test than those who didn’t nap, according to researchers. The study, published in the journal General Psychiatry, looked at both physical and cognitive health among 2,214 people over age 60 residing in large cities in China. Of these, 1,534 took regular afternoon naps while 680 did not.
The observational study found that the nappers scored “significantly higher” on the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE), a standardized dementia screening test that includes assessments of visuospatial skills, attention span, problem-solving, working memory, locational awareness, and verbal fluency.
The nappers performed particularly well in the latter three categories, according to the study led by Dr. Lin Sun of the Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Center at Shanghai Mental Health Center and Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
“Sleep has a lot to do with your capacity to learn,” Davina Ramkissoon, wellbeing director of Zevo Health, told Healthline. “Napping helps your brain recover from burnout or overload of information. While taking naps, your brain clears out unnecessary information out of your brain’s temporary storage areas to prepare it for the new information to be absorbed.”
Benefits go beyond sharpness
The study group — nappers and non-nappers alike — got an average of 6.5 hours of sleep nightly.
Afternoon naps were defined as getting at least 5 consecutive minutes of sleep but no more than 2 hours, anytime after lunch.
Nappers were asked how often they napped during a typical week. Replies ranged from once a week to daily.
One weakness of the study was that researchers did not ask participants how long they napped or at what specific time of day.
“An ideal, healthy nap should be taken in the afternoon between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. and last anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes,” Katherine Hall, a sleep coach at Somnus, a guided sleep therapy program, told Healthline. “If you are able to get a catnap in the afternoon, there are some great benefits to be had. The evidence suggests that napping is great for improving mood, energy, and productivity while reducing anxiety and physical and mental tension.”
A short afternoon nap can leave you feeling alert and ready to tackle the rest of the day without feelings of “sleep inertia” — the confused, disoriented, and grogginess you can feel upon waking, she added.
“If you’re able to nap for a slightly longer period of time, say 60 minutes, evidence suggests that napping for this length can actually aid your learning,” Hall said. “As during this longer nap, your brain will start to transfer memories from your temporary holding facility — the hippocampus — to their permanent home, the cortex.”
Not all naps are healthy
More than 1 in 3 Americans takes a nap each day, according to a 2009 survey by the Pew Research Center.
Dr. Abhinav Singh, a sleep medicine specialist and member of the medical review panel for SleepFoundation.org, told Healthline that while other studies have shown that afternoon naps improve mental agility, it remains unclear napping can prevent cognitive decline as people age.
“Any person can benefit from a short nap in the mid-afternoon, especially when timed with their natural circadian dip,” said Singh. “Short (less than 30 minutes or so) naps have been shown to increase alertness, and improve cognitive performance, and improve mood for the rest of the day.”
However, longer naps may be problematic, he said.
“Two hours suggests that more pathology may be hidden and is leading to need for increased napping,” Singh explained.
“If you frequently find yourself napping for [longer than 1 hour], then it could be a signal that your nighttime sleep quantity and or quality is not enough. Many sleep disorders could be hiding and depleting your sleep quantity and or quality… Poor sleep habits could also be at play. This is often noted in the age of screens [and] bright lights and long work hours,” he added.
“In the elderly, medical conditions and or medications used to treat them can also impact sleep quality and quantity,” Singh said. “Certain blood pressure medications, arthritis medications, muscle relaxers, and certain mental health medications can negatively impact sleep quality.”
More research is needed to determine if the need for more sleep among the elderly — including more napping — is a sign that the body is attempting to compensate for increased inflammation related to cognitive decline and dementia, Singh said.
Is Napping Good or Bad for Your Health?
Experts say the key questions to napping are why you need the daytime rest and how long you snooze. Getty Images
- In a recent study, researchers say napping two or three times a week might be good for your heart health.
- Experts say daily napping may be a sign of inadequate nighttime sleep or an underlying health problem.
- One expert says naps should be shorter than 30 minutes or longer than 90 minutes.
Getting an afternoon nap in might be the dream for most working adults and parents who set their young ones down to sleep, hoping to do so themselves.
But while young children need to spend the majority of their days asleep, taking a midday slumber as we age may not be as innocuous as it seems.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends newborns sleep up to 16 hours a day, including naps, but they stop including naps in overall sleep time for children as young as 6 years old. Teenagers should get between 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night.
The Centers for Disease Control and PreventionTrusted Source reports that a third of adults in the United States don’t get the recommended 7 hours of sleep a night.
Getting that every night as an adult seems more like a pipe dream than attainable goal. We often suffer for it later, relying on caffeinated beverages to help us power through our day when we’d rather find a quiet spot in the office to doze off for a minute.
From the “I’m just closing my eyes” to crashing long enough that you awake wondering what time and day it is, naps are surprisingly controversial in the medical community.
For starters, the need for a nap could signal larger health problems. Among other things, it can mean you’re not getting adequate sleep during the night. It can also be a symptom of dementia in older adults.
New research published this past week suggests sleep is yet another thing we need with a Goldilocks-like balance, and napping a few times a week to catch up might help stave off cardiovascular-related incidents, such as heart attack.
The importance of sleep
Any medical professional will quickly tell you about the importance of getting a good night’s rest each and every day.
Our body and mind are configured to need to be powered off for about a third of their existence. Not doing so has a strong connection to many health problems, both mental and physical.
Sleep helps us recoup from stress and allows our vital organs time to rest. This is why not getting enough sleep can have a cascade of detrimental effects.
For example, previous research has shown people with a genetic predisposition to heart disease can lower those risks by getting the right amount of sleep. However, having too much or too little sleep can put people at risk for heart attack.
Why and how is that?
Quite frankly, researchers are still in the dark when it comes to how napping plays into our health.
Nonetheless, medical professionals say they have some pretty basic ground rules when it comes to closing your eyes while the sun is still up.
Naps and heart health
Yue Leng and Kristine Yaffe, psychiatry professors at the University of California, San Francisco, recently wrote a paper published in BMJ’s Heart that addresses the fact that researchers still have more questions than answers when it comes to napping.
The biggest challenge, they wrote, is how to define and measure these rest periods.
“Are they planned or unplanned? What is the purpose of the naps? Are they taken occasionally when needed or habitually as a cultural practice? Are they taken to compensate for insufficient or poor night-time sleep, or do they indicate underlying ill health?” Leng and Yaffe wrote.
They also question whether a 5-minute “dozing off” counts as a nap.
“Until we get to the answers to some of these questions, the implications of napping cannot be fully addressed,” they wrote.
Their comments were in response to the study published this past week.
In the study, researchers from the University Hospital of Lausanne in Switzerland used data from 3,462 people without a history of cardiovascular disease enrolled in a Swiss population-based study.
They examined how often and how long participants napped per week and what condition their hearts were in later on.
Over the next 5 years, researchers noted 155 fatal and nonfatal heart-related medical events among those participants.
They saw a significantly lower risk of those events in people who took a nap once or twice a week compared to people who didn’t nap at all. That even accounted for people with sleep apnea or who were excessively sleepy during the day.
The researchers showed they found no association between how long those naps were and heart-related medical events.
Their research builds off a 2015 meta-analysis published by the Sleep Research Society.
Researchers at the University of Tokyo in Japan — a culture where napping at work is seen as a sign of hard work — found 11 studies that showed naps and heart health appear to follow a J-shaped curve. That means the risks dip to a certain point but then shoot up later on.
The researchers stated that naps less than 30 minutes — commonly referred to as “power naps” — to be beneficial in preventing coronary heart disease, but they seem to have an opposite effect if people snooze for longer than that.
That’s not to say naps are bad for your heart. Rather, the need for them might mean there’s something else going on.
The study shows a correlation — meaning things occur together — not causation.
Noting it was premature to conclude whether napping was appropriate for maintaining optimal heart health, Leng and Yaffe wrote that the research did “offer some reassurance that the answer is probably more than a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and that we have much more to learn about napping.”
The experts weigh in
Dr. Anil Rama is the medical director and founder of Kaiser Permanente’s tertiary sleep medicine laboratory, adjunct clinical faculty at Stanford University’s Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine in California, and author of the new book “Shut Up and Sleep.”
Rama told Healthline one key is looking at whether a person’s nighttime sleep is healthy and free of things such as arousals, awakenings, disordered breathing, and other issues that prevent a person from getting actual rest, rather than simply being in a bed.
“In my opinion, the question of whether napping is healthy or not in terms of duration or frequency is not relevant,” Rama said. “The relevant question: Is one’s sleep healthy? If so, one would surmise that napping should be healthy.”
Dr. Sujay Kansagra, a sleep health expert with the mattress store chain Mattress Firm and an associate professor at Duke University Medical Center in North California, says the new study on napping frequency and cardiovascular disease is an interesting one.
“[However], like many great studies, it ends up creating more questions than answering them,” Kansagra told Healthline.
Those include whether it’s the napping that helps the heart or if it’s because those who have an opportunity to nap actually have less stress.
“We know that sleep is vital for maintaining overall health. Sleep is a time where blood pressure and heart rate overall tend to be lower than while you are awake, so [it’s] likely playing a role in restoration of the heart,” Kansagra said.
He says as long as a person doesn’t have issues with insomnia, there’s nothing wrong with napping. He recommends people nap between 20 to 30 minutes or extend the nap to 90 minutes.
“Waking up in between these times may lead to grogginess since the body gets into the deeper stages of sleep during that time,” he said. “The nap will still be beneficial, but you may not feel so great right upon waking up.”
Nate Masterson, head of natural product development for Maple Holistics, says an important part of the new research is that it acknowledges the biggest challenge when it comes to measuring the health effects of naps is determining the underlying reason for the naps themselves.
“If you’re getting enough good quality sleep throughout the night, you shouldn’t be needing to nap during the day,” he told Healthline. “That being said, it’s important to honor your body’s needs, and pushing through fatigue can have an adverse effect on numerous bodily functions, including your cardiovascular health.”
Basically, if you’re tired and have the time, a quick nap isn’t the worst thing for you. But you shouldn’t ignore why you’re so tired in the first place.
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