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Time for a New Mattress?

When to take your standby to the curb, and how to find a new fit in a changed marketplace

Couple testing out mattresses at a furniture store

moodboard / Alamy Stock Photo

En español | If the rule of thumb is that mattresses last about a decade, experts say that life span may get shorter as we age. That's because our limbs and joints need more support as we sleep. If you have trouble getting comfortable when you hit the hay or if you wake up in the morning stiff and achy, you may have to accept that it's time for a new mattress.

“A good mattress cannot fix your back problems, but a bad mattress can exacerbate symptoms,” explains Jaspal R. Singh, a physician and co-director of the Weill Cornell Center for Comprehensive Spine Care. That's because after most of us settle down for the night and drift off to sleep, we stay in a fixed position until morning, thereby reducing blood flow to our spine, muscles and joints. If your mattress is worn out, it won't offer enough support to compensate for this kind of pressure. 

Start shopping and you will quickly discover that the mattress industry has changed dramatically in the past decade, as online retailers have reshaped the landscape. Gone are the days when your only option was to lie down on a dozen mattresses in a busy, brightly lit showroom, choose one and hope for the best. Instead, companies now offer months-long trial periods on mattresses that promise to wow your back with cooling gels, layers of foam and technology that claims to respond to your every movement. (Just be sure to check the return policy. Some manufacturers, such as Casper, offer lengthy trial periods with free shipping and returns on their beds-in-a-box. Other retailers, such as Macy's, charge delivery, pickup and restocking fees.)

What else is new? Firm mattresses are no longer considered the de facto solution for back pain, as studies have found that people with lower back pain preferred medium-firm mattresses to firm ones. As Singh puts it, the trick is finding a balance between enough support and the “touch of give” that makes shoulders, hips, and ankles comfortable. To try out a new and possibly different-feeling mattress, experts recommend bringing your own pillow to a showroom and lying down on any possible pick for 15 minutes.

Graphic comparison of mattress types: Innerspring, Memory Foam, Adjustable Air

Sarah Peng / AARP

Know the types

Mattress shopping can often feel like a baffling chore, with endless marketing terms that seem meaningless. Break all the jargon down, and there are three general categories: memory foam, innerspring and adjustable air. Many mattresses today are also hybrids, with aspects of different styles blended together.

Memory foam

Options for this type of mattress now abound, thanks to newer bed-in-a-box online manufacturers. And foam is particularly popular among people with back problems, since the type of material reduces pressure on joints and the spine. Foam mattresses tend to retain heat, though. So if you get overheated while you sleep, look for one with a cooling gel, such as by Loom and Leaf. 

Innerspring

These traditional mattresses with wrapped steel coils are still the most common, accounting for 60 percent of mattresses sold, according to Consumer Reports. This type may be better for people with mobility issues, as the natural bounce of the coils makes it easier to get in and out of the bed and move around. But if you have a restless partner, odds are you’ll feel the tossing and turning, too. A hybrid mattress with layers of foam atop a coil base, such as the Brooklyn Bedding signature mattress, will help reduce the bounciness.

Adjustable air

Filled with pockets of air (called air bladders) and surrounded by foam, these mattresses are a far cry from the cheap air mattresses you blow up when guests come for a visit. Instead, you can adjust the firmness as needed, making them particularly comfortable for people with arthritis or back or neck pain. A Sleep Number smart bed, for example, allows you to adjust the firmness level on your side of the bed with a remote control, while your partner can choose a different level for his or her side. Some models allow you to recline each side separately, allowing one person to sleep with their head elevated while your partner lies flat.

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