Sleep Disorders Frequent in College Students; Linked to Poor Academic Performance

Jim Kling

June 18, 2010

June 18, 2010 (San Antonio, Texas) — Sleep disorders occur in college students at a frequency similar to that found in adults and are associated with worse academic performance, a new study suggests.

Sleep disorders become more common with age, so the 27% prevalence seen in this study, though similar to the frequency in adults, is a surprise, said lead author Jane Gaultney, PhD, associate professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, who presented the research.

"We may not necessarily assume that a young, generally healthy population would be equally at risk, but maybe they are," she told Medscape Neurology. "And since risks for things like high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes can be associated with sleep problems, it's probably important to figure out when that starts."

The results were reported here at SLEEP 2010: Associated Professional Sleep Societies 24th Annual Meeting.

Narcolepsy and Insomnia Frequent

The study included 1845 students at a large state university in the southeastern United States during the 2007 to 2008 academic year. Participants completed the Sleep-50 survey, which has been validated against polysomnogram-based diagnoses.

The researchers obtained participants' grade point average (GPA) from the university's registrar's office. Seventy percent of the participants were white, 17% were black, 4% were Asian, 4% were Latino, and 5% were classified as "other." Median age was 20.38 years, and median GPA was 2.77.

The researchers found that 27% (>500) of the participants were at risk for at least 1 sleep disorder. Narcolepsy and insomnia were the most frequently reported disorders, followed by restless legs syndrome/periodic limb movement disorder, circadian rhythm disorder, affective disorder, obstructive sleep apnea, and hypersomnia.

GPA was higher among participants not found to be at risk for a sleep disorder (mean, 2.82) compared with those who were (mean, 2.65; P < .01).

The group of students with a GPA lower than 2.00 had a higher percentage of individuals at risk for obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, circadian rhythm disorder, or at least 1 sleep disorder.

Narcolepsy was found to occur at an unusually high rate, which the researcher believes to be an outlier. The results for other sleep disorders were comparable to prevalence estimates for the general adult population.

"If the findings reported here are representative, then sleep screening and treatment among college students may be of great benefit, particularly among individuals at risk for academic failure," the authors conclude.

Dr. Gaultney hopes to conduct a prospective study of an entire incoming class, tracking graduation GPA as well as graduation and retention rates.

Poor Sleep Habits

The study results are not that surprising, given how notorious college students are for pulling all-nighters and engaging in other poor sleep habits, Donna Arand, PhD, clinical director of the Sleep Disorder Center at Kettering Medical Center in Dayton, Ohio, who attended the session, told Medscape Neurology. Students are also struggling against biology.

"They have delayed sleep phase, so it's harder for them to get to sleep early, and they're all chronically sleep deprived because their classes start at 7 or 8 in the morning," Dr. Arand said.

Caffeine and alcohol may also contribute to the problem, Dr. Arand says, causing more disruptions to sleep patterns than in older adults. After entering the workforce, however, people generally adapt quickly to a normal workday.

"I think it speaks to the robustness of the sleep system and the wonderful malleability of youth," Dr. Arand adds. "They violate so many standards that we know should be present in sleep, yet they turn out okay."

The study did not receive commercial support. Dr. Gaultney and Dr. Arand have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2010: Associated Professional Sleep Societies 24th Annual Meeting: Abstract 0112. Presented June 9, 2010.

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