Last updated: Oct 29, 2008
mattress-stack
We spend one-third of our lives in bed: Choose a mattress carefully.
(FOTOLIA)
Whenever I tell friends that my mattress is decades old and that I have low-back pain, their eyes pop open. This repeated facial expression has prompted me to think that, yes, there could be a connection. Another clue is an experience I had recently when sleeping on a fabulously comfortable hotel mattress.


My husband tried to pry my fingers from the mattress corners, but I wouldnt budge. I wanted to live there. Time for a new mattress.

Thats just what the Better Sleep Council, the educational arm of the International Sleep Products Association in Alexandria, Va., told me. Achy mornings and satisfying sleeps away from home are big hints that my mattress is so over. In fact, if I go by my warranty, my mattress was over some time ago. Though warranties may be good for 10 years or so, they typically cover defects, not comfort or support.

And comfort is what begins to sag after five to seven years. “A worn mattress is like an old running shoe,” says Bert Jacobson, a professor of health and human performance at Oklahoma State University. “It loses its support and its comfort.” It also fails the all-important neutrality test. According to chiropractor Scott Bautch, an ergonomics expert and past president of the American Chiropractic Associations Council on Occupational Health, “The goal is for your spine to be neutral. If your mattress allows your spine to curve up or down, thats not healthy for blood circulation or for resting your muscles.”

View the slideshow Buy a Better Mattress With These 6 Smart Shopping Tips

Americans know a thing or two about unhealthy rest. In fact, 7 out of 10 of us have trouble sleeping (and Im definitely one of them, as Ive come to think of 3 to 4 a.m. as reading hour), according to the National Sleep Foundation. Pain, pregnancy, menopause, or insomnia can make sleep a childhood memory. And not getting a full snooze—around seven to nine hours a night—makes for less-than-pleasant breakfast chatter. More serious is the effect of sleeplessness on health: It muddles thinking and may increase the risks of obesity, diabetes, viral illnesses, heart disease, and depression.

Of course, mattresses arent miracle workers, says Clete Kushida, MD, director of the Stanford University Center for Human Sleep Research. “The small contribution mattresses make is a surface that doesnt cause pain and stress to muscles, that allows you to lie comfortably.”


Still, even if a good pallet isnt a medical breakthrough, to these achy bones, lying comfortably sounds advanced. Sounds simple too. Mattress shopping, however, is another matter. During my initial foray into a local mattress store, I realized I would have to lie down on many mattresses. Under fluorescent lights. In front of suited salesmen who talked nonstop. On my first try, I wore a skirt and, as I flopped from one side to another, I thought more about skirt length than mattress comfort. (Now that I look back, I should have read these tips before leaving the house.)

I wasnt happy with the salesmans questions, either. Did I like a soft or hard bed? Did I want a queen or a king? Foam or coil? Did I want to spend a nice chunk of my sons college funds or go cheaper? I didnt, I realized, have the slightest idea. Its good to know what kind of mattresses are out there, but the only thing that really matters is comfort, says Scott D. Boden, MD, director of the Emory Orthopedics and Spine Center in Atlanta. “And no one mattress is for everyone.”

Goldilocks had an intuitive handle on this, of course. She was all about trying something new. My husband, it turns out, was not. Just as it took a long time to introduce the habit of eating in bed to my spouse (he has since gotten used to feeling slightly breaded as he sleeps), the idea of a new bed was met with resistance. He finally agreed to the mattress, but not the shopping.

Such balking is not uncommon. “Women are the primary mattress purchasers,” says Leona Wightman, vice president of merchandising for Serta International in Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Theyre the ones who are suffering.”

Most women average less than seven hours of sleep and, according to the National Sleep Foundation, have more trouble falling and staying asleep than their spouses. So, Im on my own. As I trot from store to store—in long pants this time—I am determined to find bliss. I slip off my shoes and climb aboard one mattress after another. I test one that combines coils, foam, and two-sided air chambers. The airs easy to lose (just the touch of a button at the head of the mattress), but I have to climb out of bed to get what looks like a tiny hair dryer to reinflate it. I jump on coil ones, sometimes sinking, sometimes with a thunk.


Next I try memory foam. The salesman lets me stick my hand inside a simulated foam mitt so I can feel how cool it is. Then, while Im in a fetal position, hes slamming his competitors, letting me know Id be one gullible fool to buy what they dish out. I lie on my back. “How many stores have you been to?” he asks.

Despite the weird social exchange, I register one thing: I love two beds. Ones a coil system as stuffed as fruitcake (coils, foam, air, pillow top) for around $2,200. The other is a memory-foam model that makes me feel cushioned in just the right position, not too little, not too much—except for a $2,400 price tag, which strikes me as a bit high.

open quoteI do what may be my lifetimes one moment of brilliance: I call the hotel with the dream bed that got me on this hunt in the first place.close quote
—Dorothy Folz-Gray, Former Insomniac
But as mattress guru David Perry, executive editor and mattress writer for Furniture Today, a weekly trade publication in Greensboro, N.C., puts it, “How wonderful it would be to have a heavenly cocoon. What would you pay for that experience? What price do you put on a good nights sleep?” Well, according to Furniture Today, 56% of us are willing to plunk down $1,000 or more for that piece of peace.

I head to the next dealer, and, as if I am headed into space, we find my perfect "sleep number," airwise. To find it, a salesman asks me to say when I feel well-supported as he releases air from the mattress by remote control. I have 20 air options, he explains—which, he says, is like having 20 beds.

We look at a screen image of my body on the bed, the red spots high-pressure areas. Im on my back. I never sleep on my back, but today it helps me feel polite. My lower spine, where it chronically hurts, is bright red on the screen. The sales guy cranks my sleep number up until my whole spine is scarlet. Although the bed is very comfy, I dont like having so many choices. When I climb into bed, Im done with selection.

Then I do what may be my lifetimes one moment of brilliance: I call the hotel with the dream bed that got me on this hunt in the first place. Done deal, right? Uh-uh. Mattress manufacturers name hotel beds differently than retail beds, even if the mattresses are basically the same. Not eager to open a hotel, I call a shopkeeper who sells the same brand. He finds its retail equivalent and presto! Within a week a big, fat mattress arrives. I love it. My husband loves it. Like Goldilocks, Ive finally found the bed thats “just right.”

This article was first published in Health magazine, March 2007.