Winston Churchill was devoted to “that refreshment of blessed oblivion.” So were Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, P.G. Wodehouse, and many others.
In fact, some our greatest philosophers, statesmen, artists and writers swore by it.
They liked to take an afternoon nap.
The habit may have contributed to their great achievements.
Science is now confirming what these notable celebrities knew instinctively — taking an afternoon nap is good for the brain.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins and two other American universities examined data collected from 2,974 Chinese men and women aged 65 or older.
The participants were divided into different groups according to whether they napped at all, and how long their naps lasted. The categories were non-nappers, short nappers (less than 30 minutes). moderate nappers (30-90 minutes) and extended nappers (more than 90 minutes).
They were given various tests involving math, copying figures of different shapes, and remembering words. They were also questioned about dates and seasons of the year.
Factors that could affect the accuracy of the findings such as body mass index, night-time sleep, daily living activities and depression were taken into account.
A One-Hour Nap is Optimum
Almost six out of ten participants took an afternoon nap which lasted on average 63 minutes.
The researchers discovered those taking a nap that lasted for an hour performed considerably better on the tests than those taking shorter or longer naps.
Lead researcher Junxin Li said that non-nappers “also experienced about the same decline in their mental abilities that a five-year increase in age would be expected to cause.”
It will be remarkable if those findings hold up for the rest of us: Merely by taking a nap you might obtain the cognitive ability of someone five years younger.
“Cognitive function was significantly associated with napping. Between-group comparisons showed that moderate nappers had better overall cognition than non-nappers or extended nappers.
“Non-nappers also had significantly poorer cognition than short nappers. Moderate napping was significantly associated with better cognition than non- and extended napping.”
Commenting on the study, Dr. Paul McLaren, medical director of the Priory hospital in Kent, England said, “Siestas are well established in European culture and there is probably a very good reason why these things have become established rituals. As we get older, our sleep patterns get more fragmented. An afternoon nap can be invigorating and is good for preventing brain aging.”
Benefits the Heart as Well as the Brain
This is not the first study to reveal the benefits of an afternoon slumber. Let’s look at one that involved young people instead of seniors.
In 2012, 85 young adults who slept between 45 minutes and a hour had a significant drop in their blood pressure after a mentally stressful event compared to non-nappers.
The researchers concluded that daytime sleep offers cardiovascular benefits.
Then in a 2015 study, participants had to learn a list of 90 words and 120 mismatched word pairs such as milk and camera. One group slept for 45 – 60 minutes while the other group watched a DVD.
Members of the nap group were found to accurately remember five times as many words and pairs of words compared to the DVD group. The conclusion of the study was that taking a short nap after a concentrated period of learning plays an important role in the ability to recall information.
It seems that taking an afternoon nap — a power nap as Churchill coined it — is really valuable so long as you are already sleeping well at night and waking up refreshed. The afternoon provides a natural ‘circadian dip’ — and a chance to recharge your batteries.