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9 Ways Going to College Affects Your Health

Introduction

A woman studies on the lawn of a college campus.

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The waning days of summer herald the time when many young people wave farewell to their parents' home and head to college, where they'll face a barrage of challenges and changes, from overwhelming intro classes to inscrutable roommates.  

College students may also face challenges to their health, both physical and mental, that may have long-term effects reaching well past their undergraduate years.

"I advise students to maintain a balance," says James Davidson, assistant vice president for student wellness at the University of Nevada. "Your health is more than the physical condition of your body. There are multiple aspects of wellness to consider… When one area gets out of balance, it usually affects the other aspects of your life, whether you realize it or not."

Here are some well known, as well as some less familiar health issues that college students face as they embark on higher learning.

Stress

A young man looks stressed about his studies

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While many different parts of college life can cause stress, the outcome is the same: Stress is the top factor negatively influencing academic performance, according to a 2012 survey of 90,000 college students. The survey looked at whether students earned a lower grade on an exam, project or in a class; or dropped a class due to stress.

"Stress is the greatest impediment to academic success for most students," Davidson said. "My advice to students is to monitor their stress levels, and get assistance from your campus counseling and health centers." [11 Tips to Lower Stress]

Binge drinking

A group of people toasts with beer bottles.

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Up to 40 percent of all college students report engaging in binge drinking (typically defined as consuming four drinks on one occasion for women, and five drinks on one occasion for men). The behavior does a number on students' brains, with research showing that young adults who drink heavily have abnormalities in the gray and white matter of their brains.

Binge drinking has other serious effects. A 2009 study found that 1,800 college students die from alcohol related causes yearly; approximately 600,000 are injured under the influence of alcohol, and nearly 700,000 are assaulted by other students who have been drinking.

While binge drinking has an array of short-term negative effects, it can have more residual effects as well. A survey of 1,972 U.S. college students, interviewed during their college years and again 10 years later, found that some binge drinkers were more likely to experience alcohol dependence and alcohol abuse later in life. They also had poorer job opportunities and a higher risk of dropping out of college.

Depression

A young woman looks upset in a college classroom.

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Research shows that college students face heightened levels of depression and anxiety, with freshman often suffering the most from these issues as they adjust to a new environment. The conditions can also lead to increased substance abuse, poor academic achievement and suicide.

Depression often goes unreported by college students, but some studies suggest that students are becoming more comfortable in speaking out about this problem – the rate of reporting depression is increasing, rising by 56 percent between 2005 and 2011.

This increase is "likely a reflection of improvements in psychotropic medications, and greater utilization of mental health care due to declining stigmas around mental health," said Kevin Readdean, associate director of the Student Health Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York state.

In other words, better medication and less stigma means that more students with depression are able to start and stay in college, which has contributed to increased reporting, he said.

Social anxiety

A college woman holds her phone.

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Most college students experience a brand-new social environment upon entering college, and research confirms that almost all of them experience varying levels of social anxiety and stress.

One recent study that followed the social lives of 53 college women for five years found that social hierarchy was a dominant force in their lives, and that pressure to achieve high social status was prevalent.

The study also found that social stresses were correlated with excessive drinking, and could lead to poorer academic and life outcomes due to a 'partying' lifestyle.

Weight gain

A group of friends share a pizza

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While many new college students fear the fabled "freshman 15," the addition of 15 extra pounds is not as common as it's made out to be.

"Less than 5 percent of students are likely to gain 15 pounds during the freshman year," said Sareen Gropper, a professor of nutrition at Auburn University in Alabama. "Instead, the typical college freshman gains anywhere from 3 to 5 pounds."

And what makes the pounds pile on? College students tend to eat morehigh-calorie foods, and fail to get enough physical activity, Gropper said. "Those foods are often consumed late at night while studying, as well as during evening social activities."

Still, freshman-year weight gain is not inevitable, Readdean told LiveScience. "College students today have more dining hall food choices and information than ever before. With effort and planning, healthy eating can easily be achieved on any meal plan."

Casual sex

A college-age couple studies together

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Although many college students engage in casual sex, a recent study of more than 1,800 18-to-25-year-olds who had completed at least one year of college found that the students were not any more promiscuous during their first year of college, than they were in the years prior to college.

Nonetheless, studies show that college students believe their peers are much more sexually active than is actually the case.

Commonplace or not, casual sex comes with health risks, including sexually transmitted diseases, emotional and mental distress, sexual violence and unintended pregnancy.

"Sexually transmitted infections, most of which are treatable, are a key physical health issue for today's college students," Readdean said. "Despite access to testing, treatment and prevention options, some college students are not being proactive enough in this area."

Sleep deprivation

A woman sleeps on her desk

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Too many college students know the pain of sleep deprivation. One study of 120 university students found that 60 percent had pulled at least one all-nighter during their college careers. Unfortunately, such sleepless nights were correlated with a lower GPA.

A larger study, of 1,125 students, found that 60 percent had poor sleep habits, including delaying both bed and rise times on weekends, as well as taking prescription, over the counter and recreational drugs to alter sleep or wakefulness. These students reported more problems with their physical and psychological health than those with better sleep habits.

"Adjusting to irregular class schedules, a proclivity to pulling all-nighters, and residence hall noise are some of the barriers that may prevent college students from getting good, regular sleep," Readdean said.

Psychological effects of debt

A college-age man studies in a library

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Tuition rates are higher than ever, causing many students to take on unprecedented amounts of debt. This looming burden in turn causes stress about money and can affect students' college experience.

A recent study from researchers at Indiana University found that debt-free students engaged in a partying lifestyle, with their social lives taking on more importance than their academic obligations. These students often made social connections that lasted after college. Students with debt, however, were much less likely to party and more likely to spend time studying.

Other research has found that those students with debt are more likely to worry about their financial burden, which leads to anxiety, stress and sleeping problems.

Long-term health effects of a college degree

College students celebrate graduation

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While the health risks that can come with college may seem intimidating, overall, college tends to be good for a person's body and mind.

Higher levels of education generally correlate to better health, as well economic success and family stability, which can indirectly lead to better health outcomes. People with higher levels of education tend to have improved brain development, less biological aging and better understanding and compliance with healthy behaviors, studies show.

Furthermore, research shows that education is associated with a longer life. According to the National Longitudinal Mortality Study, men who finished college lived 2.5 years longer than college dropouts, while women with a college degree lived 1.1 years longer than their dropout counterparts. The difference was even greater when comparing college graduates to high school dropouts -- college graduates live at least five years longer on average than people who did not finish high school.

The study also showed the positive health outcomes extend into the next generation: the mortality rate of children born to college graduates was 4.2 percent, while the mortality rate of those born to women who did not finish college was 6 percent.

Thus, while college life can present some challenges, the research still supports sticking it out at school.

Follow us @livescience, Facebook or Google+. Article originally on LiveScience.