There are a variety of benign to serious health issues for college freshmen.
What are the Health Issues for College Freshmen?
There is a startling statistic that 1/3 of all campus deaths are in the freshmen population, with suicide being the leading cause. Although college freshmen are typically adults, “the brain is still developing…(in) the parts related to decision-making”. There are several preventable and treatable college freshmen health issues, however, such as lack of exercise and poor nutrition. These choices, for example, can lead to the “freshman 15” weight gain. In fact, some college students can get scurvy due to not getting enough vitamin C. Besides a sedentary lifestyle combined with poor food choices, freshmen can face alcohol problems. Freshmen could be vulnerable to victimization due to binge drinking, and “half of all accidental college deaths have been linked to drug or alcohol abuse”. Another issue facing college students is sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). While some are treatable, others can have “life-long effects”, including fertility problems in the future. Some freshmen engage in the abuse of prescription medications (such as Adderall and Ritalin), in order to enhance studying and test performance or just to “get high”. Even the stress of college life can lead to sleep problems, poor grades, and more difficulties. Stress, especially when combined with the lack of exercise and poor nutrition, “snowballs out of control”.1
According to Dr. Laura Berman, “sexually transmitted diseases are still common on college campuses”. Recent research as show that “1 in 4 college students have an STD” , and even though those between the ages of 15 and 24 are only a quarter of the population that is sexually active, they “account for more than half of the new STD diagnoses each year”. Condom usage is low, and this precautionary behavior decreases if the students are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Reasons for the lack of prevention range from deficient education on the subject, lifestyle, myths, or awkwardness. One of the myths that college students have is the idea that an STD is always visible or that carriers of the sexually transmitted diseases will “look dirty”. The most common STD is HPV, which can be present without being seen, and “it can cause genital warts and cervical cancer” if untreated. Herpes is another STD that can be transmitted even without a breakout. If not practicing abstinence, it is important for sexually active college students to use barrier protection, such as dental dams and condoms, with every encounter. Even so, condoms are not 100% effective protection. Students should also engage in regular STD testing, and make sure their partner’s STD status and sexual history are known.2
Drug and Alcohol Use
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that nearly all students in college “experience the effects of college drinking – whether they drink or not”. Statistically, 4/5 of college students drink and half of those binge drink. The consequences include death, assault, sexual abuse, injury, academic problems, health issues, and suicide attempts.3 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, daily marijuana use in college students “is at its highest since 1980”. Additional drugs being used in this age group include “non medical use of prescription drugs, cocaine, and newer trends like synthetic drugs, e-cigarettes and hookah use.”4
The old “freshman 15” phrase refers to the weight gain many students experience in their first year of college due to a sedentary lifestyle, stress, food intake changes, peer pressure, limited finances, food access, snacking, portion control errors, and new diet patterns. This isn’t just a US student situation; even international students in American colleges gain weight too. College students often skip meals, as work and class schedules frequently change, and weight management is often ignored. However, “structured eating patterns help…academic performance” and there is a “positive relationship between eating breakfast and…grade-point averages”, according to a recent study. Carbohydrates and fats are often over-eaten, while fiber is typically under-consumed. The lack of fruits and vegetables leads to low vitamin C levels, which are also lower among smokers. Often, students over-consume sodium, and do not get enough of zinc, iron, calcium, and minerals. College students also have some prevalence of eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia, which is more common “among college females than among the general population”. Poor body image, stress, academic achievement, and eating issues all contribute to these types of disorders. College athletes may also put their bodies at risk by manipulating their diet and intake of fluids, or by taking excessive supplements.5
A recent study has shown that college students often have sleep issues, such as sleep deprivation, irregular sleep schedules, and daytime sleepiness. This can result in a lower GPA, compromised learning, academic failure, a higher risk of motor vehicle accidents, and impaired mood. Students often have “inadequate sleep hygiene”, or poor habits around sleep, including alcohol and caffeine use, energy drink consumption, the use of stimulants, and technology use before bedtime, which creates a light source that interrupts the body’s melatonin. Melatonin is necessary for sleep. A vicious cycle is created of sleeplessness at night and daytime sleepiness. Students may also have sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, restless legs disorder, hypersomnia, insomnia, and other conditions. Sleep affects not only grades, but memory, learning, and mood. It is important for overall health. It may be helpful to educate students about good sleep hygiene. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be effective. It is also possible that naps and rescheduling classes could be useful. Newer research is examining the effectiveness of “electronic or web-based interventions” to help students with sleep hygiene and CBT.6
Solutions and Prevention
There are many ways to prevent health problems in college freshmen. Visiting a doctor for a checkup and any necessary preventative medications is important. Parents and healthcare professionals can discuss risks with the teens to educate them and talk about ways to handle emotional, mental, and other situations. It is also important to make sure that the health insurance and prescription medication situation is covered. Family should remain in close contact with the teen to provide emotional support and advice on situations regarding drinking, drugs, and sex. It is crucial to “watch for warning signs” if the student persists in being anxious or depressed, in order to help the teen get the necessary counseling and support. Students should try to get enough sleep and exercise to maintain health. There are “nutritious options” available to eat at college, and students should remember that late night eating can add additional, unwanted, calories. Females need about 1800 calories a day, and males need about 2200 calories per day; however athletes and “active teens…may require more”.7 To manage stress and maintain health, chiropractic care and massage therapy are additional options available. Chiropractors can also provide nutritional and exercise advice.8 Massage is beneficial for relaxation, improved circulation, and stress relief.9 Some colleges offer chiropractic care or massage therapy, as well as acupuncture, and provide medical services, nutritionists, and mental health professionals.10 There are also massage practices that cater to the college market, such as offering affordable chair massages to students several times throughout the semester to “rejuvenate” and “energize them for their studies”.11