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New Study Finds Sleep Deprivation as Damaging to Students as Drug Abuse

A study published in the most recent edition of the journal Sleep asserts that when it comes to grades, sleep deprivation can be just as damaging as binging on alcohol or marijuana.

According to the results of a study conducted at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, you can predict how successful a student will be in a class and whether they end up dropping it based simply on how much sleep they are getting. The researchers analyzed data that had been collected during the 2009 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, which involved over 43,000 participants. They found that even when they controlled for such factors as race, gender, health problems and work hours, sleep was the number one predictor for whether a student would drop a class. 

The scientists analyzing the data also found that students’ ability to get the necessary amount of quality sleep had a very similar impact on their grades as the problems caused by marijuana use or drinking to excess, but that because sleep was not emphasized of approached as a behavioral problem in the same way that these other issues generally are, the impact it overlooked.

According to lead investigator and associate professor of psychology Roxanne Prichard, PhD, “Sleep problems are not systematically addressed in the same way that substance abuse problems are. For colleges and universities, addressing sleep problems early in a student’s academic career can have a major economic benefit through increased retention.”

Of course, getting college students, and particularly college freshmen, who the study showed are far more likely to be impacted by sleep loss than upperclassmen, to get a good night’s sleep may be difficult. Between the excitement of being away from home and freed of their parents’ supervision, and the stimulation and possibilities offered by college social activities, sleep is probably the last thing on the student body’s mind. Even those who are not out partying and investigating fraternity and sorority life may feel the pressure of getting good grades and try to cram in as much studying time as possible, pulling the proverbial all-nighter.

Getting the student body to get the sleep that they need presents the same types of problems that doctors and sleep scientists are encountering with the general population. As important as we are finding that sleep is to our overall health, cognitive ability and mental processes, it is often the first thing that is sacrificed in the face of social or work demands. There is an overwhelming need to make an adjustment to the way that society prioritizes sleep, and that begins with a strong education for everybody about the costs involved with not getting enough of it.

For college students, it may be wise to provide the statistical results of this latest study during their freshman orientation in the same way that information about drug and alcohol abuse and its consequences are provided.

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