Daytime napping is a common practice many of us enjoy, but did you know it might actually be good for your brain?
That’s right! Recent research points towards the potential benefits of a midday snooze for our brain health. As we age, our brains naturally go through changes. One concerning aspect of this aging process is that our brains can shrink over time. And this shrinkage can affect brain health and is linked to risks like dementia and other diseases.
Purpose of the Study
With all the unknowns around the aging brain, a team of researchers from the UCL and the University of the Republic in Uruguay decided to dive deeper. They wanted to answer a burning question: Does daytime napping play a role in preserving our brain health as we get older?
Their study aimed to explore whether the habit of daytime napping could help keep our brains healthy. Through their study, they hoped to shed light on this exciting possibility and contribute to our understanding of brain health and aging.
To answer their questions, the researchers turned to a large-scale resource: the UK Biobank. This database is a treasure of health data from almost half a million people in the UK. It was the perfect place to start their research, with ample information for them to dig into.
Genes play a role in nearly everything we do, including when and how much we nap. The researchers used 92 specific genetic markers, known as single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are associated with daytime napping. By examining these markers, they could compare people more inclined to nap due to their genetic makeup to those who were not.
Measuring Brain Health and Cognitive Outcomes
The researchers looked at various measures of brain health and cognition to see if there were any differences between those who nap and those who don’t. They focused on total brain volume, the volume of the hippocampus (an area of the brain important for memory), reaction time, and visual memory.
To ensure their results were as accurate as possible, the researchers accounted for potential bias. This included making adjustments for variants linked to excessive daytime sleepiness, ensuring they were really looking at the effects of napping and not just sleepiness.
So what did the researchers find? After digging into the data and making careful comparisons, they discovered a positive link between habitual daytime napping and a larger total brain volume. In simple terms, people who were more genetically inclined to nap had, on average, bigger brain volumes than those who were not.
However, when it came to other measures of brain health, like the volume of the hippocampus, reaction time, and visual memory, there was no significant difference between the nappers and non-nappers. It seems that the benefits of napping might be specific to maintaining overall brain size.
To double-check their results, the researchers tested their findings with different sets of genetic markers. These tests confirmed their initial results, strengthening the evidence for a link between habitual napping and larger brain volume. These findings open up a fascinating new understanding of how something as simple as a daytime nap could potentially be a powerful tool for brain health.
Understanding the Findings
The study’s results suggest that habitual daytime napping could play a role in preserving brain health. Although the researchers did not find links between napping and other measures of brain health, the association with larger brain volume is significant.
This finding indicates that regular napping could offer some protection against neurodegeneration or the progressive loss of structure or function of neurons, including the death of neurons.
To put the results into perspective, the research team estimated that the average difference in brain volume between those genetically predisposed to be habitual nappers and those who were not was equivalent to 2.6 to 6.5 years of aging. In other words, regular napping could slow the brain’s aging process by several years.
These findings have important implications for cognitive impairments related to aging, such as dementia. If further research confirms these findings, encouraging regular, short naps could become part of strategies to help prevent cognitive decline and promote brain health in older adults.
Although these results are promising, more research is needed to confirm these findings and to explore other potential effects of napping on brain health. The researchers hope their findings will help reduce any stigma around daytime napping and pave the way for future research in this exciting field.
The Cultural Perspective on Napping
Throughout history and across cultures, the practice of napping has been embraced for various reasons, from the siestas in Spain to the power naps in fast-paced corporate environments. In some cultures, an afternoon rest is seen as a natural and essential break, aligning with the body’s circadian rhythms.
In others, it’s a strategy to improve productivity and alertness in the latter part of the day. Now, with modern research suggesting that napping could have tangible benefits for brain health, it seems these traditional practices might have been ahead of the curve in more ways than one.
University College London. “Regular napping linked to larger brain volume: Daytime napping may help to preserve brain health by slowing the rate at which our brains shrink as we age.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 June 2023. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/06/230620113759.htm