MINNEAPOLIS – College students who do not get enough sleep experience an impact on their academic performance that is on par with binge drinking or regular marijuana use, two researchers say.
"The cultural assumption is that college is a time of bad sleep, and that all-nighters fueled by energy drinks and cheap pizza are just an inherent part of what it means to be a student," investigators J. Roxanne Prichard, Ph.D., and Monica Hartmann, Ph.D., reported at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.
But they say that assumption is shortsighted and wrong. "Well-rested students perform better academically and are healthier physically and psychologically," the researchers said.
Dr. Prichard of the department of neuroscience at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, Minn., and Dr. Hartmann,professor of economics at the university analyzed data from the Spring 2009 NCHA (the American College Health Association National College Health Assessment), which included survey information from 72, 966 students, 63% of whom were female and 75% of whom were white.
Students who participated in the survey were asked about their physical and mental health, sexual activity, and substance use, among other issues. They also were asked whether they’ve had sleep problems or had been diagnosed with a sleep disorder or insomnia.
Using data from more than 43,000 respondents, the researchers attempted to evaluate factors that predicted academic problems, including dropping a course, earning a lower course grade, and having a lower cumulative grade point average. The researchers examined those impacts for all students but focused on freshmen, because first-year performance "has such a large effect on retention rates and thus the economic stability for the institution of higher education," the researchers said. They found that sleep timing and sleep-related problems in college students were a strong predictor of academic problems, even after they controlled for other factors that might have had an impact, including clinical depression, feeling isolated, and a diagnosis of a learning disability or chronic health issue.
Students who earned "A" grades reported experiencing fewer of the following sleep issues: early awakenings, feeling sleepy during the day, going to bed early because they could not stay awake, or having trouble falling asleep. Students with worse grades tended to report more sleep issues.
Sleep problems had about the same impact on GPA as did binge drinking and marijuana use, the authors reported. In freshmen, poor sleep was an independent predictor of whether a student would drop or withdraw from a course. The authors adjusted their analysis to account for race, gender, work hours, chronic illness, and psychiatric problems such as anxiety.
Reducing sleep problems might have had a greater impact than reducing binge drinking or marijuana use, they said. For instance, improving sleep on just 1 night a week reduced the probability that a freshman drops a course by about 15%, the authors found.
Dr. Prichard and Dr. Hartmann also tried to gauge the effect that sleep disturbances in college eventually might have on the university’s ability to keep the student and the student’s future earnings potential. They determined that a sleep screening program that identified students at risk and led to treatment would be cost effective, even for the smallest universities. "Identifying and treating students with undiagnosed sleep problems early on in a student’s career economically benefits the university through increased retention and increases the students’ lifetime earning potential," they said.
But they noted that most institutions of higher learning do not pay much attention to students’ sleep habits. Rarely is there any time or money devoted to improving sleep, and if there is, it’s much less than the amount spent to address learning disabilities, substance abuse, and contagious illness, the researchers said. They encouraged a reexamination of the resources directed toward sleep quality in this population.
Dr. Prichard and Dr. Hartmann reported no conflicts. They received no outside funding for the study.
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