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Study of More Than 2,000 People Links Afternoon Naps to Better Mental Agility

26 JANUARY 2021

A brief nap in the afternoon has been linked to better mental agility by a new study - improved locational awareness, verbal fluency and working memory was noted in participants who napped versus those who didn't.

 

The research looked at a total of 2,214 people aged 60 or over in China. They were all asked what their napping habits were, and then given a series of tests to measure different types of cognitive ability, from solving problems to staying focussed.

While the length and frequency of the naps varied among the volunteers who were questioned, the analysis found "significantly higher" cognitive performance scores in people who said they regularly got some shut-eye around the middle of the day.

"Several studies have shown that afternoon napping promotes cognitive function in the elderly; on the other hand, some studies have shown opposite results," write the researchers in their published paper.

"This study highlighted higher cognitive performance in nappers in the elderly, supporting previous observational studies."

That some studies back up the idea that daytime snoozing is linked to better brain function while other studies don't is a bit of a puzzle for scientists, and for those of us wondering whether we should be working on forming a napping habit or not.

The researchers in this case suggest that whether or not the napping is intentional, as well as the duration of the naps, might play a role – these factors weren't measured here, though naps were defined as lasting less than two hours and more than five minutes.

 

Even with the limitations of the study – which isn't enough to show cause and effect, just an association – the researchers say it's a useful look at how napping might act as a sort of mediator between poor health and the body's inflammatory responses.

Previous studies have looked in detail at the links between sleep and the immune system, and there have been suggestions that napping can have an effect here too.

It's important to remember that health and wellbeing goes way beyond cognitive function, so there's a lot to consider when it comes to working out whether napping is actually good for us.

"When a disease or cell damage occurs, napping may help regulate the inflammatory response," write the researchers.

This study did also look at the level of triglycerides, a type of fat found in blood, in the participants.

The results found that regular nappers had higher levels of these lipids than non-nappers – perhaps because those with more sedentary lifestyles are more likely to take a nap. This is another area that future research could focus on, the team behind the study suggests.

 

While napping generally becomes more common as people get older, scientists aren't yet sure if this kind of daytime napping can help prevent dementia and other kinds of cognitive decline, or whether it's actually a symptom of it.

Right now the consensus seems to be that, on balance, napping is usually good for us, and there's no question that, generally speaking, getting enough sleep and rest is essential for keeping our bodies healthy and well.

And if you're wondering just how prevalent napping was in the study sample, 1,534 people reported taking at least occasional afternoon naps, while 680 didn't – so if you do find yourself tempted to get a bit of shut-eye during the day, you're definitely not alone.

The research has been published in General Psychiatry.