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Baby boomers have insomnia, and Big Sleep is cashing in

An employee sleeps in the nap room at Thrive Global in New York.
An employee sleeps in the nap room at Thrive Global in New York.(Vincent Tullo/The New York Times)

Sleep has been around since the beginning, but in a sense, it has just arrived.

Corporations are installing nap pods. The health insurance giant Aetna pays employees to sleep — up to $300 per year if they log a lot of shut-eye. The Army has named sleep as a third of its “performance triad,” along with diet and physical fitness.

Sleep has picked up trendy lingo — experts are all about “sleep hygiene” — and even starred in the opening scene of the “Roseanne” reboot, when her husband, Dan (John Goodman), thought to be dead, is startled awake wearing a sleep apnea mask.

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An obese, aging, and insomniac nation has become so fearful of sleep insufficiency — and its links to chronic disease — that we’re up nights worrying about being awake.

With our restless legs twitching, sleep apnea masks delivering steady air pressure, sleep trackers monitoring our wakefulness, blackout shades darkening our rooms, Neiman Marcus’s $29 “Deep Sleep Pillow Spray” doing whatever it might do, white noise machines masking the teenagers’ music, meditation gurus intoning mantras on downloaded apps, our bodies slathered with cannabis-derived CBD oils, our 25-pound weighted blankets calming anxiety, our spouses snoring, our co-sleeping Goldendoodles kicking in their dreams, we’ve turned sleep into a $30 billion to $40 billion industry, according to a 2017 McKinsey & Company report.

Yes, sleep is the new gold. Or as McKinsey put it: “There’s little doubt that the sleep-health economy will offer robust investment opportunities for private equity firms and growth opportunities for their consumer-focused portfolio companies over the next several years.”

Once for losers who couldn’t cut it in the hard-charging business world, sleep is the new MBA. But it would be a mistake to see sleep’s new status as a sign society has recognized the need to slow down. It’s the opposite. Sleep is being blessed because we now know a rested employee is a better employee.

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Big Sleep has become such an attractive investment that major tastemakers are eager to co-brand. Tom Brady is hawking $200 sleep-enhancing pajamas. Arianna Huffington has written a whole book on the subject. Gwyneth Paltrow is pushing a “clean sleeping” regimen. It includes common-sense behaviors, like turning off electronics and limiting afternoon caffeine, but also an $80 copper pillow case.

Those three, by the way, along with the Dalai Lama, were named to Tomorrow Magazine’s prestigious list of 2018’s “10 Most Influential People in Sleep.”

(“Sleep is the best meditation,” the Dalai Lama’s quote reads. “It’s not only important for nirvana, but for survival, too.”)

The posh Canyon Ranch resort in Lenox now offers a “sleep enhancement” package for guests. The overnight sleep analysis costs $2,950 — on top of nightly room rates that start at $900 per person.

In 2018, the power nap has been replaced by an even more powerful nap, the “coffee nap.” You guzzle a cup of warm coffee, immediately take a 20- or 30-minute nap, and wake in time for the caffeine to kick in.

Sleep has gotten so sexy that a bed company is throwing a party for a pop-up “performance sleep shop” on Newbury Street this month. With cocktails, music, and “special appearances from local notables,” it sounds more like a movie premiere than an event for a mattress.

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When Uggs introduces a $500 Slumber Bootie, sleep’s makeover will be complete.

Sleep expert Jeanne F. Duffy sees two factors converging to create sleep’s moment. “People are getting less sleep than recommended, and at the same time they’re becoming aware that a lack of sleep can make them not just cranky the next day, but also more likely to gain weight and to develop diabetes or Alzheimer’s when they’re older,” said Duffy, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and the secretary-treasurer of the Sleep Research Society.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported a correlation between sleep deprivation and chronic conditions including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression.

Mental distress also comes from wasting money on sleep aids that don’t work. In an effort to guide the tired and poor, Consumer Reports cautioned readers in 2016 about an industry that was just waiting for its moment: sleep coaching.

Sleep coaches charge up to $150 per hour and analyze diet and bedroom environment, but, as a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine told the publication, “There’s little evidence that people who hire these coaches actually sleep better.”

But with studies showing that tens of millions of Americans suffer sleep issues, people are desperate.

The CDC says that adults 18 to 60 years old need seven or more hours per night; those 61-64 should get seven to nine hours; and those 65 and over should get seven to eight hours.

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In Malden, sleep-challenged Deb Charpentier, 61, is exhausted from working two jobs, as a pharmacy technician and a warehouse employee, but is somehow not tired enough to sleep.

“I’ve tried ear plugs,” she said. “I’ve worn eye patches. I’ve had animals in the room, not animals in the room.

“I tried melatonin, but I dreamed too much. I went to a psychologist and discussed it with her, and she was like, ‘Let’s talk about the reasons why you might not be sleeping blah, blah, blah.’ ”

Charpentier has been advised to elevate her feet. Or her upper torso. Or to lie flat. She’s been told to wear less clothing to bed. Or maybe more.

Weary of pricey gimmicks, she’s hoping that a free remedy — time — will cure her.

“Maybe when I get older, I will hit that inner Zen thing,” she said.

As the benefits of sleep become ever more clear — and for many aging baby boomers ever more elusive — those who can pull off a seven-hour night know to keep their blessings to themselves.

“You don’t even like to say you slept well,” said Jenny Allen , author of “Would Everybody Please Stop: Reflections on Life and Other Bad Ideas.” “It sounds smug.”


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com.