By Eric Pianin
Special to The Washington Post
History is replete with powerful leaders and warriors such as Napoleon, Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy who routinely napped in the afternoon, regardless of the crises swirling around them.
“Nature has not intended mankind to work from eight in the morning until midnight without the refreshment of blessed oblivion, which even if it only lasts twenty minutes, is sufficient to renew all the vital forces,” Churchill once wrote.
Increasingly, science is siding with the nappers, with researchers finding that short sleeps not only are beneficial to drowsy individuals and the elderly but also are essential to public health, public safety and economic productivity.
An international team of neurologists recently published a study showing how sleep deprivation can disrupt brain cells’ ability to interact and communicate. A night of lost sleep can result in temporary mental lapses that impair memory and distort visual perceptions, according to the study published in early November in the journal Nature Medicine.
Itzhak Fried, the senior author of the study and a professor of neurosurgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and Tel Aviv University, said in a statement that his team discovered that “starving the body of sleep also robs neurons of the ability to function properly.”
In a recent study, University of Pennsylvania researchers found that a moderate nap in the afternoon coincided with improvements in people’s thinking and memory prowess and may have helped the brain perform as if it were five years younger. The study, published by the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, focused on 3,000 older people in China and examined whether those more inclined to take brief naps performed better on mental ability tests.
Afternoon napping is prevalent among older adults in China and is considered part of a healthy lifestyle. Scientists found that people who took a nap after lunch did better on the mental agility tests than those who did not sleep in the middle of the day. Overall, 60 percent of people in the study slept after lunch, for an average nap of 63 minutes. The study concluded that one hour was the optimal nap length and that people who had much longer or shorter rests — or no naps at all — performed up to six times worse on memory and math tests.