Healthy Aging

healthy aging

Napping: To do or not to do

In Coleridge's Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, the ancient mariner, deprived of sleep, exalts "Oh Sleep! It is a gentle thing, Beloved from pole to pole." And so it is, sleep is not only a respite from the awake state, but it is healthful and necessary for normal wakefulness. But, as we age there is a troubling change in sleep. Age is a risk factor for insomnia that may result from the changes that occur in our biology as we age. Sleep patterns change as we age and it is normal for there to be more "breaks" in a night's sleep - or put another way, more awake periods.

What is Normal Sleep?

Sleep is made up of two cycles, one is REM sleep and the other non-REM. These cycles occur all during the time one is experiencing normal sleep. Generally there are five to seven of these cycles during the seven to eight hours that we normally sleep. The non-REM sleep is the more restful but both are required for our sleep to be normal. Sleep has many health benefits, just like exercise and a good diet.

What is a Nap?

Unlike the prolonged normal sleep at night, a nap is a much shorter period of sleep that ranges usually between ten and 40 minutes and most often occurs during the day. Naps are not long enough to include all the stages of normal sleep, and do not include REM sleep. However, naps confer many of the healthful properties of normal night sleep. Most importantly they make us more alert, give us stamina, and actually improve our activities such as driving. Naps are essential if we are sleep deprived, but they can be part of a normal sleep pattern each day, if not prolonged. The ideal nap is usually 20 to 30 minutes.

Types of Naps

There are three types of naps according to the National Sleep Foundation. The first is planned napping that involves taking a nap prior to planned loss of sleep, like a long trip or going our for a late evening. The second is emergency napping and is a method to restore alertness and psycho-motor activity when it is failing - as when one becomes drowsy while driving a car. It is prudent to pull over at a safe place and take a brief emergency nap. The last and most common for those of us aging, is the habitual nap, a nap that is part of a routine and planned daily many times a week. It occurs at the same time and usually in the same place each day such as a sofa or in bed after lunch. All types of naps are useful and have a place for us in our healthy aging.

Napping: Things to Remember

Naps clearly are effective "tonics" for the tiredness that many older people experience during the day. If kept to a reasonable length they do not lead to insomnia at night and convey some reduced incidence of heart disease, to name just one benefit. They also make us more alert and able to carry on with planned activities. However, if the naps are too long - over 40 minutes - we can suffer from "sleep inertia" after awaking. This is a condition where we remain sleepy, perhaps briefly disoriented and less able to carry out complex activities. Sleep inertia passes after about an hour, so it is a temporary problem.

The older one gets the harder it is to get a good night's sleep defined as seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Bottom line, try to get sleep - it is good for you as you get older. Napping is a proven good strategy to get sleep and stay healthy. So just do it.

Healthy Aging readers may contact Dr. Reves by email. Suggestions or questions for future columns are welcomed.

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