Can Rest "Naps" Boost Brain Health?

Aging and Sleep: Maintaining Your Mind's Health

If you feel guilty about snoozing after lunch, don't worry. Research shows that napping after lunch can help your brain. But the length of your nap is important. 

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society found that a 30- to 90-minute nap in older adults is beneficial to the brain, but anything longer than an hour and a half may compromise cognition, and the ability to think and recall information.

“I consider napping to be a good thing, but it needs to be taken in the context of the person and his or her own sleep cycles and body,” says Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center.

For older people, as the study showed, longer naps tend to interfere with cognition, she says.

Brain-boosting Rest "napping"

Researchers looked at data from 2,974 people in China ages 65 and older. Nearly 60 percent of participants reported napping after lunch for about an hour.

People who napped for 30 to 90 minutes had better word recall – a sign of good memory – than those who did not nap or napped for longer than 90 minutes. Another sign of good cognition was better to figure drawing for those who napped for that golden 30 to 90 minutes. 

Gamaldo suggests the poor cognition of people who take longer naps may be attributed to poor nighttime sleep quality. In the study, naps longer than 90 minutes could have been called a second sleep.' She says this poor quality nighttime sleep – the kind that requires extra-long napping during the day – can lead to cognitive problems.

Try Taking A Rest

The rest period "nap" should last between 20 and 40 minutes in order to avoid feeling groggy after waking up. "A quick cat nap should be restorative."

The best time to nap for older adults is between 1 and 4 p.m., according to Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center. “Napping at this time of day gives you the most bang for your buck,” she says.

Ideally, the nap should last between 20 and 40 minutes to avoid feeling groggy immediately after you wake up. “A quick cat nap should be restorative,” she says. Shorter naps also ensure you don’t have trouble falling asleep at night.

Problems with longer naps 

Gamaldo says longer naps can cause a few problems, including:

Feeling groggy for a short period of time:

Gamaldo says people who take longer naps feel groggy when they wake up. "They may be waking up from a deeper stage of sleep, which occurs later in the cycle, and feel foggy-headed," she says.

An inability to sleep at night:

"You might want to consider limiting your napping if you have insomnia at night or it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep at night," Gamaldo says. 

A Fine Balance

The study found that people who sleep too much or too little may have poor health and even a shorter life expectancy. Therefore, Gamaldo says, people must get the right amount and quality of sleep. 

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