As more people work from home during the pandemic many are reporting an increase in loneliness, snacking more often, and putting on weight. While these aren’t necessarily healthy results of the pandemic, there’s one new habit that is… taking an afternoon nap.
In fact, the results of a new study suggest that dozing off, even for as little as five minutes, boosts cognition, increases verbal fluency and improves memory. It may even help you prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
This new study is the latest in a long line of studies that reveal contradictory results on napping’s effects on the brain.
Some of the science to date demonstrates that napping lowers the risk of cognitive decline, while other research shows dozing off in the afternoon is actually a marker for an increased risk of dementia.
As you’re about to see, the difference between a “healthy” nap and an “unhealthy” nap has to do with the nap’s duration as well as your overall napping frequency.
Regular Naps Lower Brain Inflammation
In this latest study, researchers from China looked at the relationship between afternoon naps and cognitive function in Chinese people aged 60 and over.
Researchers followed a total of 2,214 men and women. Of these, 1,534 took naps after lunch between one to seven days a week. Their naps ranged from five to 120 minutes. Both nappers and non-nappers slept about the same amount of time each night.
Researchers found, after taking into account a variety of demographic factors, that compared to non-nappers, those taking a snooze in the afternoon showed significantly higher cognitive performance. Napping was also strongly associated with strong language function and memory.
Lead author, Dr. Lin Sun, commented, “Taking a regular afternoon nap may be linked to better mental agility. It seems to be associated with better locational awareness, verbal fluency and working memory.”
He added that napping regulates inflammatory chemicals, which, in turn, can improve overall health.
Dr. Lin Sun and his team published their results in the journal General Psychiatry in January.
Earlier research found brief naps could also help prevent Alzheimer’s disease.
Those researchers found that shorter naps of less than 30 minutes in duration no more than four times a week improved cognitive function and reduced the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by 84 percent—that’s a huge reduction!
On othe other had, napping can become unhealthy for your body and your brain.
Past Research Indicates Longer, Frequent Naps are Damaging
One study published over two decades ago linked poorer cognitive function to longer, more frequent naps.
In addition, a study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that in 1,180 people from the Rush Memory and Aging Project, those who took more than one nap a day had a 30 percent higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
“This study for the first time showed that longer and more frequent daytime naps were associated with increased future risk of Alzheimer’s dementia,” explains Professor Peng Li, one of the study’s authors.
Overall, Prof. Li found that for every 30 minute increase in daily napping, there was a 20 percent increase in the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
A Nap is a Sleep “Snack”– Don’t Overdo it
Professor Jim Horne, a retired British sleep neuroscientist and author of the book, Sleepfaring – A Journey Through the Science of Sleep, states that naps, while not a replacement for sleep, can be “a very useful supplement, provided you keep the nap short.
“It can be refreshing to take a 15-minute nap when daytime sleepiness hits in the early afternoon.
“Sleep is done by the brain, for the brain — a nap is like a sleep ‘snack’ or nibble, which alleviates sleepiness and so improves your focus, your ability to pay attention, and your energy levels for a little longer.”
Short Naps Improve Mood, Outlook
Another expert, Guy Meadows, a sleep physiologist and founder of the Sleep School online clinic says, “Naps have been shown to block feelings of anger and fear whilst increasing positive feelings — because they alleviate tiredness, which can make us vulnerable to negativity.”
He goes on to say that hormonal activity leads us to feel sleepy by mid-afternoon, and that ten to 20 minutes is ideal for a nap.
To get the most out of a nap, don’t look at it as an opportunity to sleep, he suggests. Instead, see it as an opportunity to switch off and let your mind rest.
He advises us to “think of a nap as like meditating.”
Sounds good to me.