Getting the right amount of sleep—between seven and nine hours for most adults, according to experts—has been shown to boost most aspects of your health, including cognitive health. Conversely, clocking more or less than that number of hours has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease (AD) and other forms of cognitive decline. But experts say you don’t necessarily need to reach your targeted sleep goal all at once, especially if you’re over 65: napping during the day can help. In fact, there’s one time of day that’s considered ideal for reaping the cognitive benefits of daytime sleep. Read on to learn what time you should nap to boost your brain health.
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In addition to impacting just about every organ and tissue in your body, getting a good night’s rest is essential to maintaining cognitive function, experts say.
“Quality sleep—and getting enough of it at the right times—is as essential to survival as food and water,” writes the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Without sleep you can’t form or maintain the pathways in your brain that let you learn and create new memories, and it’s harder to concentrate and respond quickly.” They add that getting adequate sleep helps nerve cells communicate with one another, and “plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in your brain that build up while you are awake.”
As we get older, it’s not uncommon to have trouble falling—and staying—asleep at night. Additionally, seniors often wake up earlier in the morning than they did in middle age. According to Donald Ford, MD, a family physician with the Cleveland Clinic, it’s “normal” to experience these changes, though you should still aim for a total sleep duration of at least seven hours.
“It actually is natural for an older person to sleep less at night, but also to need a nap during the day so that they can kind of compensate for that,” Ford explained in a 2018 podcast. “I see some of my older patients who were very frustrated because they really don’t sleep as much at night and then they feel tired all day… Well, you don’t need as much at night, but you do need it in a couple of sessions,” he said.
If you do nap to compensate for poor sleep at night, it’s best to do so in the afternoon. That’s according to a 2021 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health which found that “napping in the afternoon improved cognitive performance, especially for alertness.”
The benefits of nodding off after lunch are plentiful, according to the study authors. “Our study demonstrated that napping in the afternoon improved all types of cognitive performance,” the researchers wrote. “Napping is particularly beneficial to performance on tasks, such as addition, logical reasoning, reaction time, and symbol recognition,” as well as memory, creativity, productivity, and other brain functions. Additionally, “daytime napping offers various other benefits such as relaxation, reduced fatigue and improved mood.”
Charlene Gamaldo, MD, medical director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, adds that the ideal time for older adults to nap is between 1 and 4 p.m., in accordance with their sleep-wake cycles. “Napping this time of day will provide you with the most bang for your buck,” she says.
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Gamaldo says that ideally, your nap should be short—lasting just 20 to 40 minutes—to help prevent you from feeling groggy afterward. Those who sleep for longer “may wake up from a deeper stage of sleep, which occurs later in the cycle, and feel fuzzy-headed,” she explains.
Napping for too long during the day may result in difficulty falling asleep at night, as well. “You might want to think about limiting your napping if you’re having problems with insomnia, or it’s taking you more than 30 minutes to fall asleep at bedtime,” Gamaldo says.
Studies have shown that taking long daytime naps may in itself be a sign of cognitive decline. If you have trouble getting adequate amounts of sleep, or if you notice any stark changes in your sleep habits at any time, speak with your healthcare provider.