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College Students Priorities Impacting Sleep

Though it will come as no surprise to the parents of college students, or anybody who has ever been a college student themselves, a new study has determined that college students are more sleep deprived than the general population. But the extent to which this group makes conscious decisions prioritizing their studies and social activities over sleep may be something of an eye opener.

The study, which was coauthored by Dr. Adam Knowlden, assistant professor of the University of Alabama department of health science and Dr. Manoj Sharma, a researcher formerly with the health promotion and education program at the University of Cincinnati, will be published in an upcoming issue of Family & Community Health.   The two followed nearly 200 employed undergraduate students from the University of Cincinnati. The students all operated motor vehicles and had no signs of sleep disorders. What they found was that students showed tremendous disregard for the health impacts of sleep deprivation. 

Dr. Knowleden said, “The health benefits of sleep did not factor into student’s decisions about whether or not to get adequate sleep. This might suggest the students offset sleep when faced with other activities they deem more important, such as academic coursework or social activities.”

When the students were asked about why they were not getting enough sleep, most pointed to the stress of their job and not having enough time available to get a goo night’s rest. The study showed that the students expressed more concerns about whether not getting the appropriate amount of sleep might impact their ability to manage their stress or to focus at work then they were about any kind of health impact that the lack of sleep might have on them. They also seemed well aware of what they needed to do in order to get better sleep. They cited the need for more conducive sleep environments, less physical and mental stress, and adhering to a stricter sleep schedule as things that they would need to do to improve their sleep quantity.

Dr. Knowlden points out that the factors that impact college students’ ability to get the sleep that they need are unique when compared to those of the rest of the population. “Students may be experiencing a new level of independence and can struggle to find the balance between juggling classes, finances, social lives, athletics, volunteer work, parental expectations, and employment. While most students see sleep in a positive light, most are unaware of practices that can improve their sleep.” He goes on to say, “Learning how to manage time and finances for example, are two key ways to help students reduce stress.”

Sleep deprivation is a problem that has grown to epidemic proportions in the United States according to a recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the biggest contributing factors to this problem is the fact that people do not give sleep a high enough priority, and tend to choose it as the one thing that they can sacrifice in the face of the pulls of work, family and social life. What most people do not realize is that sleep deprivation can have serious and long lasting effects on physical and emotional health. Lack of sleep can lead to obesity, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, and other negative health impacts. It has also been lined to depression and has a significant impact on the ability to remember, to learn and on performance in cognitive tests. These last effects should be of particular concern to the student population, yet students seem to be unphased by the facts and do not take them into account when making their decisions about how to allocate their time each day.

“About 33 percent of the general population receives insufficient sleep versus about 60 percent of the college population,” says Knowlden. “One of the main differences is that college students’ ability to get sufficient sleep is more within their control, whereas the general adult population is more likely to be dealing with medical sleep disorders.”

Again, it is not surprising that college students often choose behaviors that are unhealthy, or even that are risky. Though much of this population has earned a reputation for choosing behaviors that are unwise, that does not mean that the problem is insurmountable. Dr. Knowlden believes that students can be taught to understand the importance of sleep and the various methods that they can use to make it a higher priority. He also believes that by educating students about both the specific negative impacts of sleep deprivation and about the various steps that they can take to improve their sleep hygiene and habits, they can make real changes. “Students can achieve good sleep and still maximize their educational opportunities.”

The goal is for students to be able to get between seven and eight hours of quality sleep every night, the same amount that every healthy adult needs. “Sleep is extremely important to overall health,” he says. “Poor sleep has short-term consequences on mood, concentration, and higher learning and can lead to the dangers involved in drowsy driving. It also has long-term ramifications on our overall health. Research has found links between poor sleep and diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity.”

College students who are trying to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep that their bodies need can start by following some simple sleep hygiene rules. Establishing a regular bedtime and time to wake up can be difficult in college, particularly with the pull of social activities and the demands of studying, but doing so will provide better preparation for learning and a higher ability to focus and perform well on tests. Sleeping environments should be as dark as possible and as quiet as possible – if a dorm or roommate situation makes that difficult, look into ear plugs, room darkening shades, or an eye shade. It is also important to stick to the same schedule on weekends as on weekdays – our bodies do not have two separate body clocks, and sleeping late and staying up late on weekends can wreak havoc with the ability to get a good night’s sleep.

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