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50 Or Older? Bring On The Power Naps

Here's what older adults have to gain by making naps part of their routine.
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Psst! Your cat (or dog) knows something you don't. Napping is incredibly beneficial for the body and mind, and not just animals are privy to this. Europeans have long been fans of siestas, many influential politicians have championed a midday snooze and now forward-thinking tech giants like Google have installed sleep pods at their offices. In fact, new research confirms five surprising benefits of napping. Here's what older adults have to gain by making naps part of their routine.

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1. Napping improves mental function.

A recent study of almost 3,000 Chinese adults aged 65-plus found that those who napped after lunch for 30 to 90 minutes achieved better overall cognitive function than non-nappers.

Dr. Junxin Li who led the research found: "The overall cognition score is a composite score that captures cognitive domains of orientation to time and attention, episodic memory (short-term and long-term word recall) and visuospatial abilities." To put that into perspective, those who didn't nap experienced a decline in mental ability similar to a five-year increase in age.

2. Napping assists with learning.

One reason we nap is to make up for inadequate sleep during the night, which according to the National Sleep Foundation becomes more common as we age. Sleep provides us with a host of benefits, including the ability to learn and retain information more effectively.

"With sufficient sleep, a person can attend optimally to new information, which enables effective learning. Sleep also plays an important role in the consolidation of memory. Lastly, healthy sleep is necessary for efficient recall of accurate information," says Dr. Natalie Dautovich, assistant professor of counseling psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the National Sleep Foundation's environmental scholar.

3. Napping decreases risk of heart disease.

A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that napping may be good news for your heart. The study of over 23,000 Greek adults aged 20 to 86 and found that regular naps decreased the risk of death from heart disease. After controlling for lifestyle factors, researchers found that participants who regularly napped had a 37 per cent lower coronary death rate than those who never napped. Regular napping was defined as three times a week for an average of 30 minutes.

4. Napping improves energy and alertness.

If it's a dose of alertness you're after, the National Sleep Foundation suggests a short nap of 20 to 30 minutes. Snappy snoozes certainly worked at NASA, where research showed that a 26-minute nap enhanced overall alertness by 54 per cent. It even inspired an entire nap program aptly titled NAP26.

Dr. Nerina Ramlakhan, a physiologist and author of Fast Asleep, Wide Awake, explains why this is particularly important as we age: "Napping for the over-55s is particularly good because of the effects on the immune system and general energy levels. Many people in this age group don't sleep as well — stress, hormonal issues, life — and topping up your energy in this way can go a long way to preventing serious health issues and burnout."

5. Napping reduces blood pressure.

According to research presented at the European Society of Cardiology Congress, taking an afternoon nap can lower blood pressure. The study included 386 people aged 61 on average and all with raised blood pressure. After adjusting for other factors, the study found that nappers had a four per cent lower blood pressure reading when awake and a six per cent lower reading while asleep than participants who didn't nap. While the reduction may seem small, researchers added that even small reductions have been found to reduce the chance of cardiovascular events by up to 10 per cent.

If you have a longer period of time to nap, such as 90 minutes, you can complete a full sleep cycle and wake up feeling refreshed.Dr. Natalie Dautovich

Best amount of time for a power nap

Before you head to bed, consider what Dr. Natalie Dautovich has to say about the best amount of time for a power nap.

"Studies have shown that short naps can help increase alertness, but these naps should only last about 20 minutes. This length allows you to wake up from your nap and immediately be on your toes," she says. But perhaps you're napping to catch up on missed sleep or ahead of a late night event and 20 minutes won't cut it. "If you have a longer period of time to nap, such as 90 minutes, you can complete a full sleep cycle and wake up feeling refreshed," she says.

And then there's the matter of when. The vast majority of studies look at afternoon napping, and it's for good reason, says Dr. Dautovich: "Napping during the post-lunch dip in alertness capitalizes on a natural drop in alertness at this point in the day, but still gives you enough time to build up your sleep drive across the remainder of the day."

Abby Driver is a freelance journalist and qualified fitness instructor. Based in Cornwall, U.K., she writes for a range of publications on health and well-being.

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