To Nap or Not?

Research shows there are many benefits to napping. But if you have chronic insomnia, they may not be such a good thing.

siesta2How I envy people who can nap! My husband, for instance, no sooner announces his intention and stretches out on the sofa than he’s down for the count. Or people I see on planes, trains, buses, and park benches. They settle down in their seats and then—bam!—their heads are lolling on their chests.

“That’s talent!” said an insomnia sufferer I interviewed for my book, and I agree. Drift into slumber amid the hubbub of people loading suitcases into luggage bins, or among strangers on a beach? I couldn’t do that in a million years. It’s rare that I can even catch a few minutes’ midday shut-eye within the quiet, protective walls of my home.

Benefits of Napping

But quite a bit of research suggests I’d be better off if I could. Not only does midday napping seem to make people more alert, but it also enhances thinking and memory. For example, in a study of medical residents, subjects that napped an average of just 8 ½ minutes were sharper and had fewer attention failures than residents who remained awake.

Longer naps appear to be even better if the aim is to consolidate memories. A study that compared three groups—subjects that napped 10 minutes, others that napped 60 minutes, and others that stayed awake—found that upon awakening the nap-takers recalled more of the information learned before the naps than did those who remained awake. The memory retention in the 10-minute nap-takers was temporary and disrupted by the learning of new information. But the 60-minute nap-takers were able to hold on to more material learned before napping despite the interference of new learning.

Napping and Insomnia

The benefits of napping sound fabulous. So why is it so hard for me and many others who suffer from insomnia to seize a few winks during the day?

The central nervous system has both alerting and inhibiting forces, and current thinking holds that on the arousal side, insomniacs are cranked up a notch too high. Even though we might feel tired and dull as mud, these overactive alerting forces make it harder for us to sleep both night and day.

Nor are naps—especially long naps—recommended for people who have trouble sleeping at night. Sleep drive, which builds higher with every waking moment and finally propels us into slumber, diminishes if we descend into deep sleep, which may occur during longer naps. So for people inclined to insomnia, the experts generally recommend cutting naps out altogether or restricting them to 30 minutes.

Recommended or ill-advised, naps are mostly out of the question for the likes of me for now. But I’m holding out hope that perhaps in my dotage I’ll be nodding off with my peers for little catnaps during the day. Aging is never a picnic, but the thought of being able to nap is a pleasant one.

Do you take naps? In what ways do they seem to help?

Medical Residents and a Midday Nap

Deep Sleep During a Daytime Nap

A Brain Workout for Better Sleep

We often hear that exercise improves sleep, and I’m a believer. When I skip my late afternoon workout on the elliptical trainer, I don’t fall asleep as easily or sleep as well.

But can vigorous mental exercise also lead to better sleep?

Sounder sleep can be achieved with vigorous physical and mental exerciseWe often hear that exercise improves sleep, and I’m a believer. When I skip my late afternoon workout on the elliptical trainer, I don’t fall asleep as easily or sleep as well.

But can vigorous mental exercise also lead to better sleep? I first heard the idea proposed during an interview with Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at University of Pennsylvania, in September 2011.

“Since sleep is of and by and for the brain,” Perlis said, “it stands to reason that cognitive loading will be far more impactful on sleep . . . than exercise ever would.”

Perlis is a leading sleep specialist, so he should know. But I was doubtful. My work as a writer involves plenty of mental exertion, yet I’ve never found it amounts to a hill of beans when it comes to helping me sleep.

But now, in light of findings published in April in PLoS One, I think Perlis may be on to something after all.

New Research on Mental Workouts

The aim of this study, conducted by a pair of Israeli scientists, was to find out what effect an eight-week computerized cognitive training program would have on the mental sharpness and the sleep of older adults (aged 65 to 85) with insomnia.

The researchers took 51 older insomniacs and divided them into two groups. One group received computerized training designed to develop high-level cognitive skills: memorization, categorization, estimation, scanning, avoidance of distractions, and so forth. This training took place for 20 to 30 minutes three times a week.

The other group, the controls, performed computerized tasks that did not engage high-level cognitive functioning.


Not only did the group that underwent cognitive training improve their skills in naming (recognizing the first letter of an object’s name), avoiding distractions, and various kinds of memory. Their cognitive improvement also correlated with significant improvements in their sleep. Specifically,

  • improved visual scanning was linked to falling asleep more quickly
  • improved naming was linked to fewer awakenings at night, and
  • increased ability to avoid distractions was linked to getting more sleep at night.

Notably, the control group experienced declines in working memory and ease of falling asleep.

The Take-home Message

So for those of us concerned about sleep as we age, it looks like it’s not just a matter of staying physically fit. Good sleep may also depend on keeping our brains active and challenging ourselves to learn new things.

Does mental exertion have an effect on your sleep? For better or for worse?

Cognitive Training Improves Sleep Quality

A Personal Take on Memory and Sleep

I’ve been griping about my memory for years. Only recently, though, have I come to realize that the problem might have something to do with insomnia and sleep.

In Monday’s blog I complained about how I have to grope these days to find the right word. Retrieval from the stockpile of words in memory isn’t as easy as it used to be.


Actually, I’ve been griping about my memory for years! Only recently, though, have I come to realize that the problem might have something to do with insomnia and sleep.

The memory issues I’m talking about are different from the ones associated with aging, where you forget new information, like the name of the movie you saw yesterday, or forget you’ve told someone a story, and tell it again and again. My problem has to do with forgetting factual information and chunks of my life. This is not a new thing for me. I’ve struggled to recall facts and personal experiences for years.

“Do you remember the time when. . .” my sister and brothers will begin, and nine times out of ten, I draw a blank. It’s not just the small stuff I’ve forgotten, it’s major occasions like attending my brother’s college graduation or my parents hosting a family reunion. Other family members are quick to recall these events and fashion them into credible slices of life. Yes, I think, it could have happened exactly this way. It probably did. Yet nothing they say—no reminder of a gaffe someone made or a gift I received—is enough to jog my memory.

So much of who we believe ourselves to be depends on remembering: This is what I did, this is what I said, this is what happened, this is what I know, this is why I think the way I do. If some of this foundation is missing, how can it not affect our sense of self? “Who am I?” is a question I find myself asking now and again, and it’s unsettling. I’m more vulnerable to stresses that come my way in the present without a firm grip on what I’ve learned and where I’ve been in the past.

Insomnia and Memory Impairment

While writing my book, I came across research suggesting that insomnia may be a factor in memory impairment. Normally, the consolidation of facts and personal experience in long-term memory takes place at night, when new memories are processed so they become more resistant to loss and deterioration. The result is that sleep actually improves your mental hold on learning that took place the day before. So if you’re studying for a test, getting a good night’s sleep after learning word pairs will actually enhance your performance the following day.

But this enhancement did not occur in insomniacs who participated in a study conducted a few years ago in Germany. In this experiment, insomniacs and normal sleepers were asked to learn 40 word pairs. Cued with one word, the subjects had to recall the other. The performance of the two groups was identical during the learning phase. The number of learning trials they needed in order to remember at least 24 words was the same, and the number of words they recalled in the last trial of the evening was the same.

But what a difference the night made! In the morning, as expected, the normal sleepers remembered more words than they had on the final trial the night before. But alas for the insomniacs, they recalled fewer words.

Is insomnia a factor in my struggle to remember? It may be. The effects of sleep deprivation on memory is a hot topic in sleep research today, so if you, too, wrestle with sleep and memory, stayed tuned!

If you’ve got memory issues, I’d love to hear your comments. Does your memory seem to be affected by your sleep?

Memory Loss: What’s Sleep Got to Do with It?

We all know memory loss is part of aging, and that glimmerings of compromise start appearing in middle age.

A new study by sleep researchers in California suggests that age-related memory loss is caused by changes in sleep, and that remedies being developed to improve sleep may help us remember more.

memory-lossAll my friends are complaining about memory loss these days.

“Was I supposed to call you? I’m sorry. I can’t remember a thing unless I write it down.”

“It’s my Halfs-heimers. How long before I forget my name?”

All this talk about memory issues makes me feel a little less self-conscious about mine. Yes, I’m more and more prone to sounding like my mother, who gropes a lot for words. “She told me I had to—oh, you know—there’s something I have to fill out—you know—to get the money . . . She’s going to send it to me—what’s the word?” And how long before I also start repeating stories the way my mother does, who told me not once or twice but ten times that she suspected her missing checkbook fell into the trash?

Memory Loss and Sleep

We all know memory loss is part of aging, and that glimmerings of compromise start appearing in middle age. A new study by sleep researchers in California suggests that age-related memory loss is caused by changes in sleep, and that remedies being developed to improve sleep may help us remember more.

Short-term memory storage occurs in a brain region called the hippocampus. But for memories to become consolidated for long-term storage, they have to be transported to the front part of the brain, or the prefrontal cortex—a process that occurs during sleep. As people age, two things occur to interfere with this process.

  1. We lose gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, the region responsible for initiating the slow brainwaves that occur during deep sleep. Deep sleep is the kind of sleep that enables memory consolidation to occur. In turn,
  2.  We get less deep sleep—much less, in fact. While young adults spend about a quarter of their sleep time in deep sleep, the amount of deep sleep older adults get may be as little as 10 percent. So in older adults, some short-term memories in the hippocampus never get to migrate to the long-term storage area at the front of the brain.

“When we are young, we have deep sleep that helps the brain store and retain new facts and information,” said UC Berkeley sleep researcher Matthew Walker, commenting on the study in Medical News Today. “But as we get older, the quality of our sleep deteriorates and prevents those memories from being saved by the brain at night.” The result is that we have trouble remembering facts that we learned and events that occurred just a day or two before.

Remedies in the Pipeline

But hope is at hand, this same group of researchers says. Despite aged-related deterioration of the prefrontal cortex, new therapies under development now may help prevent memory loss. Weak electrical stimulation of the brain and new medications may help promote deep sleep and improve the memory of older adults.

“Can you jumpstart slow-wave sleep and help people remember their lives and memories better?” said Bryce Mander, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at UC Berkeley and the lead author of the new study, published last month in the journal Nature Neuroscience. “It’s an exciting possibility.”

I don’t know how you feel, but I want access to these slow-wave sleep-promoting therapies RIGHT NOW.

Have you noticed that how soundly you sleep seems to affect your memory? The issue is near and dear to my heart, and I’ll share a more personal perspective in my blog on Thursday.

Boosting Slow-Wave Sleep Could Restore Memory

Disrupted Slow-Wave Sleep and Memory