Since the advent of EEG recordings, sleep spindles have been identified as hallmarks of non-REM sleep. Despite a broad general understanding of mechanisms of spindle generation gleaned from animal studies, the mechanisms underlying certain features of spindles in the human brain, such as "global" versus "local" spindles, are largely unknown. Neither the topography nor the morphology of sleep spindles remains constant throughout the lifespan. It is likely that changes in spindle phenomenology during development and aging are the result of dramatic changes in brain structure and function. Across various developmental windows, spindle activity is correlated with general cognitive aptitude, learning, and memory; however, these correlations vary in strength, and even direction, depending on age and metrics used. Understanding these differences across the lifespan should further clarify how these oscillations are generated and their function under a variety of circumstances. We discuss these issues, and their translational implications for human cognitive function. Because sleep spindles are similarly affected in disorders of neurodevelopment (such as schizophrenia) and during aging (such as neurodegenerative conditions), both types of disorders may benefit from therapies based on a better understanding of spindle function.