LONDON — There are plenty of benefits from working at home. Should one of those be trading in the traditional afternoon lunch break for an afternoon nap? A new study finds taking a regular midday nap may be good for the brain and keeps a person’s cognitive abilities sharper.
The first question is: what constitutes a nap? Researchers in Shanghai define this quick respite as sleep lasting between five minutes and two hours. The findings come from the team’s study of more than 2,200 people over the age of 60. Over 1,500 of these participants took a regular nap after lunch.
“Taking a regular afternoon nap may be linked to better mental agility,” corresponding author Dr. Lin Sun and the team write in a media release to the British Medical Journal. “It seems to be associated with better locational awareness, verbal fluency, and working memory.”
Using naps to fight dementia
A person’s chances of developing dementia increase as they get older and they experience the natural neurodegenerative changes that come with age. In the developed world, around one in 10 people over the age of 65 suffer from some form of the condition. Cognitive decline can result in memory loss, speech impairments, and even problems with motor control.
“As people age, their sleep patterns change, with afternoon naps becoming more frequent,” the Chinese researchers explain. “But research published to date hasn’t reached any consensus on whether afternoon naps might help to stave off cognitive decline and dementia in older people or whether they might be a symptom of dementia.”
The new study examined 2,214 healthy people living in several large cities around China. In all, 1,534 took a regular afternoon nap after lunch while 680 did not. Each of the participants took a series of health exams and cognitive assessments, including the Mini Mental State Exam (MMSE) which monitors for dementia.
Aside from their regular naps, the group averaged around 6.5 hours of night time sleep as well. The study also asked volunteers how often they napped during the week, which ranged from once a week to every day.
The test screening for dementia featured 30 parts that measure cognitive ability including visuo-spatial skills, working memory, attention span, problem solving, locational awareness, and verbal fluency.
“The MMSE cognitive performance scores were significantly higher among the nappers than they were among those who didn’t nap,” study authors report. “And there were significant differences in locational awareness, verbal fluency, and memory.”
Is napping an anti-inflammatory?
Researchers admit their findings are observational and the study doesn’t establish exactly how napping benefits the brain. However, they do offer some possible explanations for the positive mental changes.
“One theory is that inflammation is a mediator between mid-day naps and poor health outcomes. Inflammatory chemicals have an important role in sleep disorders,” the research team concludes. “Sleep regulates the body’s immune response and napping is thought to be an evolved response to inflammation. People with higher levels of inflammation also nap more often.”
The findings appear in the online journal General Psychiatry.
SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.