The majority of people from the ages of 18 to 24 have the best of both worlds: They're past the awkward stages of adolescence but haven't yet succumbed to the perils of age. The braces are off and the joint pain hasn't begun.
But instead of reveling in the health of their prime, too often young adults eat crap, drink and take drugs, drive too fast and don't get enough sleep. Obviously, these are stereotypes -- not all college-age people have this kind of lifestyle -- but even if you're in bed every night at 8 pm, chances are you know plenty of friends who are, well, partying like it's 1999. Such is the life of many American college students: work hard and play harder.
But you're not fooling the experts; studies show many college students deal with some serious ailments. Granted, the news media dwell on the sensationalized issues, like drunken benders where someone falls out of a fourth-floor dorm-room window. In reality, though, such events are rare. Even though the most common health problems college students face may not be exciting enough for the evening news, they are important. For instance, the most widespread ailment college students report, based on the Washington State Assessment (WSA), a college health survey comparing students from each college in Washington with the national averages, is... allergies. On average, in fact, nearly half of all college students in the nation -- and 49.6 percent at Eastern Washington University -- report suffering from allergies.
"I draw a graph from birth to [age] 100," says Dr. Richard Gower, a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington who treats allergies and asthma and who researches immunology here in Spokane's Rockwood Clinic. "The [line] goes up and comes down drastically; as you age, the incidences of allergies decline. By the time they're going to college, they're 17, 18, 19 [years old] and they're right in the middle of the age group having the most allergies."
Gower says allergies are genetic, so there's not much someone can do to prevent allergies aside from avoiding the allergen -- which often is impossible.
"I'd say about 15 to 30 percent of the [Inland Northwest's] population have allergies," Gower says, citing the dry air, pollution, dust storms and the fact that this region grows more than half of the country's bluegrass seed. Surprisingly, though, Gower says college students with allergies generally seek treatment as opposed to younger kids or adults.
Gower also points out that Americans are becoming increasingly allergic: "There have been several intensive studies showing that here in the United States, where children are often raised in sterile environments, particularly in the higher socioeconomic status [environments], there are not enough infections, and allergens go up."
It should also be noted, for those who plan to use Gower's comment as an excuse not to clean anything for the next year, that infections aren't a great alternative.
Another major health problem among young adults, not surprisingly, is sleep deprivation. It only makes sense that college students all over the nation are strolling through campus like zombies, given that many must work part time to get themselves through school, handle the workload of classes and keep up with their social lives.
"Our culture sort of supports that [schedule]," says Vicky Manson, sleep technician with the Sleep Institute of Spokane. "You are successful if you move, move, move. Sleep is given short shrift, generally." In the WSA, students reported sleep as one of the issues they dealt with the most in the past year. At EWU, of the students who responded to the WSA, about 40 percent felt they'd gotten enough sleep to feel rested in the morning three to five days a week; the next highest percentage was students who only felt that way only one to two times a week. Manson says everyone needs about eight hours of sleep, even those who don't think they do.
"People think sleep is 'down time,' but during that deep sleep a lot of healing is taking place. Hormones are released, the rhythms change and a lot is happening; sleep is a very active time." Without a full eight hours each night, Manson explains that the body accrues a sleep debt.
"Your brain will do micro sleeps at seconds at a time," she says. "You'll miss pieces of a conversation. You may feel like you're awake but in a lecture you may space out."
So the next time you relate to what W.H. Auden once wrote -- "A professor is one who talks in someone else's sleep" -- it may mean you need a nap. Manson says even though we can't always control the fact that we'll have late nights or early mornings, college students should try to make up for lost sleep when they can, like on the weekends or even during a break. She notes that even though college students are keeping schedules that rival those of many CEOs, it shouldn't be a problem if they're staying healthy.
"You should be able to keep as full a day as you want," Manson says, "if you're getting proper sleep."
Majoring in Depression
The classic college flick, Animal House, never addressed this downer. It's the unspoken, misunderstood -- even humiliating -- aspect of life in college. Depression, anxiety, stress, fear, worry, anorexia and bulimia, and other mental disorders are epidemic on college campuses nationwide. About 19 percent of college students who responded to the WSA reported experiencing serious depression in the last year. Campus clinics are inundated with requests for help; self-medication with alcohol or drugs is common.
It's ironic that at a time when the world is spread before them, more and more college students are experiencing hopelessness. According to Psychology Today, a magazine that prints articles about emotional well-being, 85 percent of North America's student counseling centers reported an increase in "students with severe psychological problems" over the past five years. Part of why college health clinics are seeing a rise in mental health issues on campus is because more students are seeking help than they did in the past. Also, mental illness is more detectable and it's taken more seriously than it used to be.
"The world isn't getting crazier, college is just getting more like the real world" reported Pamela L. Graesser in "Crisis on the Campus," published in Psychology Today. Graesser is a college counselor at an East Coast university. She says attending university is more common than it was 20 or 30 years ago, and the populations on campuses more closely resemble any community population. Another theory is that more students are entering college who are already being treated for mental disorders. Because many students are already on medication, it's easier to monitor the prevalence of mental health issues on a given campus.
So if the college student in your life is sneezing with allergies, baggy-eyed with sleeplessness or morose to the point of clinical depression, be aware that he or she is battling some serious medical issues. The ancient Greek physician Herophilus seemingly had today's college students in mind in this remark: "When health is absent, wisdom cannot reveal itself, art cannot manifest, strength cannot fight, wealth is useless and intelligence cannot be applied."