Seniors: Sneak a Nap for Better Sleep

Seniors: Sneak a Nap for Better Sleep

Healthnotes Newswire (March 24, 2005)—Older people who have difficulty sleeping at night can benefit from daytime naps, reports the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society (2005;53:48–53).

More than half of older people do not get enough sleep at night. Although sleep disturbances can be caused by conditions such as sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome, seniors with sleep problems simply wake too early or have trouble falling and staying asleep. As a result of chronic sleep deprivation, many older people experience daytime sleepiness, depression, low activity level, and generally poor mental and physical functioning during the day.

Medicines typically used to treat sleep disorders can worsen daytime sleepiness, inactivity, and depression. Regular exercise has been found to be a safe way of improving sleep as well as daytime functioning, and it is thought that napping might also improve alertness and ability to perform tasks, but these effects have only been consistently demonstrated in young people.

Thirty-two men and women aged 55 or older took part in the current study. All participants were healthy and did not have sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, or use sleep medications. Observed in a laboratory for three nights and days, participants were randomly assigned to spend two hours each afternoon either napping in bed or engaging in a sedentary activity, such as reading or watching television.

On the second and third days, participants performed prescribed tasks on a computer every two hours from 9 a.m. until 7 p.m., except during the designated two-hour nap or sedentary period. The tasks tested logical thinking, visual search skills, matching colored words to color-coded keys, and reaction speed. Throughout the three-day trial, sleep was monitored for quality and duration.

One week later, the three-day trial was repeated with the two-hour nap and sedentary-period assignments reversed. The quality and hours of nighttime sleep were not different on nights after napping than on nights after the sedentary period. Hours of sleep over a 24-hour period, however, increased by 1.2 hours (from 6.2 to 7.4 hours) on napping days compared with days with sedentary time. Furthermore, average scores on performance of tasks were significantly better on napping days than on days with a sedentary period.

The results of this study suggest that napping can improve daytime functioning in older people without interfering with nighttime sleep. The combined effect of napping and exercise has the potential to help many elderly people who have trouble sleeping. The existence and extent of such a combined benefit and whether seniors with sleep disorders can benefit from napping needs to be clarified in future studies.

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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