In healthy, young individuals, a reduction in cardiovascular output and a shift from sympathetic to parasympathetic (vagal) dominance is observed from wake into stages of nocturnal and daytime sleep. This cardiac autonomic profile, measured by heart rate variability (HRV), has been associated with significant benefits for cardiovascular health. Aging is associated with decreased nighttime sleep quality and lower parasympathetic activity during both sleep and resting. However, it is not known whether age-related dampening of HRV extends to daytime sleep, diminishing the cardiovascular benefits of naps in the elderly. Here, we investigated this question by comparing the autonomic activity profile between young and older healthy adults during a daytime nap and a similar period of wakefulness (quiet wake; QW). For each condition, from the electrocardiogram (ECG), we obtained beat-to-beat HRV intervals (RR), root mean square of successive differences between adjacent heart-beat-intervals (RMSSD), high-frequency (HF), low-frequency (LF) power, and total power (TP), HF normalized units (HFnu), and the LF/HF ratio. As previously reported, young subjects showed a parasympathetic dominance during NREM, compared with REM, prenap rest, and WASO. Moreover, older, compared to younger, adults showed significantly lower vagally mediated HRV (measured by RMSSD, HF, HFnu) during NREM. Interestingly, however, no age-related differences were detected during prenap rest or QW. Altogether, our findings suggest a sleep-specific reduction in parasympathetic modulation that is unique to NREM sleep in older adults.

Document Type


Publication Date


Notes/Citation Information

Published in Psychophysiology, v. 58, issue 7, e13701.

© 2020 The Authors

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Funding Information

This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health R01 (AG046646) and (AG061355).