Study shows a new bed offers wealth of health benefits

By Bert Jacobson

How long does the average mattress retain its support and comfort? That question remains unanswered. But in the study we recently completed at Oklahoma State University comparing a set of sleep variables for participants sleeping on their old beds—5 years old or older—to the same variables when sleeping on new beds, we found significant and sustained improvement in sleep quality, sleep comfort and sleep efficiency, as well as significant reductions in back pain and stiffness.

In light of our findings, I find it interesting that people tend to buy cars or appliances more frequently than beds. Likewise, joggers retire their running shoes after a certain number of miles to avoid the risk of pain or injury.

It should be axiomatic that beds are not built to last forever. The average age of the participants’ old beds for this study was 9.5 years. With an average of seven hours of sleep per night, this adds up to more than 24,000 hours spent in that bed.

If the bed subtly breaks down over the years, it is reasonable to conclude that an equally subtle onset of pain and stiffness and reduced sleep quality follows. However, subtle increases in stiffness and pain over a decade are typically blamed on a person’s age rather than the mattress. Too few people are considering the possible benefit of a new mattress.

New bed benefits immediate

Through our research, we found that new bedding improved sleep quality by 62% and sleep comfort by 70.8%, and reduced back pain by 55.3% and back stiffness by 50.7% over a four–week period. We also found that lower back pain was much more prominent for those sleeping on cheaper beds and older beds.

But regardless of their personal bedding systems, participants experienced immediate reduction in pain and stiffness and improvement of sleep comfort and quality when sleeping on new mattresses. The reduction in pain and improvement in sleep became more prominent over time, and participants improved regardless of age, weight, height or body–mass index.

Moreover, when participants were assigned to high and low pain groups based on initial evaluation, both groups experienced significant reduction in pain when sleeping on new mattresses. Even those who reported minor problems sleeping showed significant improvements in sleep quality and comfort—at levels similar to those who were poor sleepers.

Sleep loss problem grows

Everyone recognizes the sensation of contentment and satisfaction upon rising after a deep, dead–to–the–world sleep. Unfortunately, the luxury of a good night’s sleep is one that eludes a great many in our society.

In harsh contrast, most people are familiar with how it feels to lose valuable and needed sleep, either through burning the midnight oil or as a result of a troubled, tossing–and–turning night. A poor night’s sleep, coupled with the need to rise early to face the challenges and obligations of work and family, compromises our ability to do our best.

Our brains are not sharp, our thought processes are not focused and our social interactions are strained.

Approximately 70 million Americans are affected by sleep problems. About half of all adults experience occasional trouble sleeping and the extent of reported sleep problems is increasing annually.

For instance, a 2000 survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that 62% of American adults reported having at least one night with poor sleep per week. In 2005 the proportion rose to 75%. In the same survey, 26% reported getting a good night’s sleep only a few times per month or less.

Recent research has found that our children also are in need of sleep. The lack of sufficient sleep affects their functioning and cognitive ability and relates to higher levels of depression, anxiety and fatigue, as it does with adults.

Sleep debt accumulating

Americans average less than seven hours of sleep per weeknight, which represents a condition of sleep deprivation for many. While the standard recommendation for sleep is eight hours per night, some can function on less and many require more. A comparison of the recommended eight hours sleep to the national average indicates that most Americans incur an accumulated sleep debt of more than six hours per workweek.

Specialists have suggested that, in today’s society, sleep deprivation is extensive and that the problem is due in part to a fast–paced lifestyle, stress and commitments. Because sleep is a basic physiological and restorative need, disturbed sleep affects daytime activity, social interactions, mood, quality of life and numerous other aspects of our life. Impairments in cognitive and motor performance due to lack of sleep have been compared to alcohol intoxication.

The cost of sleep deprivation related to lost productivity and accidental injury on the job is enormous. A recent study by the Institute of Medicine found that sleep–related fatigue contributes to an estimated direct and indirect cost of $150 billion annually in absenteeism, workplace accidents and lost productivity.

Perhaps the key to better sleep, health and productivity is as simple as sleeping on a new, quality mattress. Certainly, if a new mattress can contribute to greater sleep quality and efficiency, as our study found, it is a much healthier alternative than many other methods of sleep inducement.

Data on stress, sleep & beds

The latest bit of data we extricated from our study at OSU deals with the relationship between stress and sleep. In a survey conducted by the Better Sleep Council, the consumer education arm of the International Sleep Products Association, 65% of Americans said they are losing sleep due to stress, 32% are losing sleep at least one night per week and 16% are experiencing stress–induced insomnia. While we know that stress can interfere with sleep, it also is probable that lack of sleep contributes to stress.

Based on this theory, we had our study participants complete a stress questionnaire while sleeping on their old beds and again after a month of sleeping on the new bedding. We found that both stress behavior and symptoms were greatly reduced. Additionally, a follow–up after six months indicated that the stress levels remained as low as or lower than those recorded a month after the introduction of the new mattresses.

Our findings overall strongly suggest that new bedding systems can significantly improve selected sleep variables and that continuous and sustained sleep quality may be dependent on timely replacement of bed sets.

Bert Jacobson is a professor and head of the School of Educational Studies at Oklahoma State University. He authored the study “Subjective Rating of Perceived Back Pain, Stiffness and Sleep Quality Following Introduction of Medium–Firm Bedding Systems” with Tia Wallace and Hugh Gemmell. It was recently published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine. Jacobson also served as national spokesman for the Better Sleep Council’s media campaign for Better Sleep Month in May.