September 01, 2021

Naps: The good and the bad

Up to half of older adults report that they take naps. This may be attributed to everything from changes in sleep patterns with aging to cultural beliefs that afternoon naps are beneficial for health.

Naps can be good for you. They may help reduce daytime sleepiness and fatigue, often the result of poor nighttime sleep. And some research — including a recent study published in General Psychiatry — suggests that naps could help brain functions such as processing memories and performing daily mental tasks (executive function).

Why naps might give the brain a boost isn't known for sure. One hypothesis is that sleep helps regulate immune system responses, so naps may boost the body's ability to counter inflammation associated with cognitive impairment.

But research has yet to show a definitive cause-and-effect relationship between napping and brain function, good or bad. Some studies tie long naps (90 minutes and longer) to a higher risk of brain health issues. This includes accumulation of amyloid-beta proteins, which can lead to dementia. Excessive napping tends to lead to reduced physical activity and socializing, which are both associated with maintaining healthy brain function. In addition, napping itself may be an early sign of cognitive problems.

While the news on napping is nuanced, getting enough sleep is essential for good health. Mayo Clinic experts advise that a quick nap — ideally, less than 30 minutes and earlier in the afternoon to avoid interfering with bedtime — may help recharge the brain. However, if you find yourself napping often or...