During the hours between 2 and 5 PM, it’s very common for people to find their eyelids slowly but surely closing shut all on their own. Maybe it’s post-lunch fatigue, or just built into our circadian rhythms, but the afternoon doldrums are a very real phenomenon.
Most people do their best, via any number of pick-me-ups like coffee or energy drinks, to fend off afternoon tiredness and power through to the end of the workday. Interestingly, however, a new study finds it may be a better idea to simply give in to that fatigue and take a quick nap.
Just published in the British Medical Journal, a team of Chinese researchers reports that a regular afternoon nap is linked to stronger mental agility. More specifically, people who take a nap most afternoons shower better locational awareness, working memory skills, and verbal fluency. Not to mention all the money you’ll save on afternoon Starbucks runs.
Generally speaking, older people tend to take more afternoon naps than any other age group. Study authors say this has historically been attributed to changes in sleep patterns as people grow older; most people find that they sleep less at night/in the morning as they enter late adulthood, which eventually leads to more naps during the day.
Now, due to longer and longer average life expectancies, dementia rates among the elderly continue to rise. Regarding the role of midday naps in all this, researchers thus far haven’t been able to determine if more naps help protect against mental decline or whether napping more often is a symptom/consequence of dementia development.
In pursuit of some answers, this study’s authors analyzed a group of 2,214 generally healthy Chinese citizens (all aged at least 60 years old). All the participants lived in urban areas of China, including Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian.
Most subjects (1,534) reported taking a regular afternoon nap, while others (680) said they rarely doze off during the day. On average, participants said they usually slept 6.5 hours per night.
Overall mental and physical health was assessed via several measures, including the Mini-Mental State Exam (MMSE) which tests for dementia. These assessments tested participants’ memories, problem-solving skills, attention spans, visuospatial skills, locational awareness, and verbal fluency.
An “afternoon nap” was described as any period of sleep engaged in after lunch lasting at least five minutes and no more than two hours.
Sure enough, adults who reported taking a regular afternoon nap scored higher on the MMSE test, and also did better on locational awareness, verbal fluency, and memory tasks.
Ultimately, this research was observational. This means that researchers can not definitively conclude that more naps equal greater cognition. What they can say, however, is that people who nap more tend to have stronger cognitive skills. The machinations behind those observations have yet to be agreed upon.
Some people are natural nappers while others can’t wrap their minds around falling asleep any time before 10 PM. Regardless of where you fall on the napping spectrum, consider indulging in a little bit of extra shuteye the next time you feel exhausted in the afternoon. It may do a world of good for your overall productivity.
The full study can be found here, published in General Psychiatry.