The Link Between Frequent Naps & Cognitive Decline

Mar 25, 2022

We all like to nap; at least, we think so. Even our pets love to take naps. But are we napping too often during the day? It’s an interesting question.

For many of us, it’s a mentally and physically refreshing part of our daily routine. Even Winston Churchill was an inveterate napper who once said: “Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion which, even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all vital forces.”

Beware of Frequent Napping

Recently, though, our attention was drawn to a disquieting article published on CNN as part of their Sleep Awareness Week, which stated that: “Frequent napping or regularly napping for extended periods during the day may be a sign of early dementia in older adults, a new study revealed.”

We dug deeper.

It turns out that there was a correlation between aging and napping with excessive regularity. According to a study published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association,

…elderly adults who napped at least once a day or more than an hour a day were 40% more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than those who did not nap daily or napped less than an hour a day.

This was originally published in the National Library of Medicine, the results were reported by Dr. Yue Leng, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, who stated: “We found the association between excessive daytime napping and dementia remained after adjusting for nighttime quantity and quality of sleep.”

This is, of course, not to say that napping causes dementia – rather, that it may be an early sign or symptom of the condition.

Rush Memory & Aging Project

The study upon which this finding is based deployed data accumulated over 14 years by the Rush Memory and Aging Project, which followed over 1,400 people between the ages of 74 and 88 (with an average age of 81), so the findings are neither anecdotal nor trivial.

It has been recognized for some time that Alzheimer’s is a brain disease that oftentimes causes changes in mood and sleep behaviour and that excessive napping may be a clue to cognitive decline.

Most seniors are all too well aware that both sleep quality and quantity declines with age, often due to such inevitable complications as the need for more frequent trips to the bathroom during the night. That’s one reason why we older folks tend to take naps more often than we did when we were younger. It’s an inevitable and non-threatening consequence of ageing.

Should You Nap?

While the scientific basis for the connection between excessive napping and the development of Alzheimer’s was derived from a complex study undertaken over considerable time, it did throw up some simple and practical recommendations.

According to Dr. Leng and other experts:

  • Adults should limit any daytime naps to 15 to 20 minutes before 3 p.m. to achieve the most restorative benefits from napping and keep from harming nighttime sleep.
  • Older adults and caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease should pay increased attention to daytime napping behaviours and be alert to signs of excessive or increased numbers of naps.
  • Any significant increase in napping behaviour should be discussed with a doctor. It may be harmless! But, it’s best to check.

Is Excessive Napping a Wakeup Call?

The CNN article also included an observation by Dr. Richard Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic in the Center for Brain Health at Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine, who stated: “I think it’s never too late for someone to be able to make a brain-healthy lifestyle change or pay more attention to their brain health. Making sleep a priority, paying attention to sleep quality, and talking to your doctor about sleep: These are all critical things.”

Isaacson added: “Further studies are warranted with devices that are validated to detect sleep versus sedentary behaviour. But at the same time, being sedentary and not moving for long periods of time is a known risk factor for cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s.”

The bottom line: regardless of why you’re napping frequently or too often, it’s worth keeping an eye on your cognitive health and making every effort to have consistent, healthy sleep patterns.

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