Megan Brooks

June 05, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — Poor sleep in college kids has an effect on academic performance that is on par with binge drinking and marijuana use, new research shows.

For colleges and universities, addressing sleep problems early in a student's academic career can have a "major economic benefit to their bottom line," study investigator Roxanne Prichard, PhD, associate professor of psychology, University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, told Medscape Medical News.

The study was presented here at SLEEP 2014, the 28th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies.

Dr. Prichard and colleague Monica Hartmann in the Economics Department at University of St. Thomas used data from the Spring 2009 American College Health Association (ACHA) National College Health Assessment (NCHA) to examine factors that predict undergraduate academic problems, including dropping a course, earning a lower course grade, and having a lower cumulative grade point average (GPA).

Responses from over 43,000 undergraduate students aged 18 to 25 years attending an institution of higher learning in the United States were included in the analysis.

The results show that sleep timing and maintenance problems are strong predictors of academic problems after controlling for other key factors that contribute to academic success, including depression, feeling isolated, and presence of a learning disability or chronic health issue.

"Reducing the number of days a student experiences a sleep problem by just 1 night a week reduces the probability that a freshman drops a course by 15.38%," Dr. Prichard told Medscape Medical News.

"By comparison, reducing the number of nights of binge drinking or marijuana use (holding other factors like depression and stress constant) does not have a statistical impact on the likelihood of dropping a class or earning lower grades in the first year of college," she noted.

The negative impact of poor sleep is more pronounced for freshman, the researchers note.

"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," Dr. Prichard commented. "However, that's not the case; plenty of students get consistent, good-quality sleep, and as it turns out, the students who report the fewest sleep problems are the ones earning higher grades and completing college."

Dr. Prichard noted that sleep problems are largely overlooked by colleges and universities in terms of how they allocate student resource funds.

"The budget line for improving sleep (if there even is one) tends to be minuscule when compared to the resources universities invest in addressing learning disabilities, substance abuse problems, and contagious illnesses, for example. If campus administrators value a productive, engaged, and healthy student body, then they should reexamine how much resources they can devote toward helping their students achieve better sleep," Dr. Prichard said.

Even for a school with 500 students, it is cost-effective through increased retention rates alone to run a sleep screening program, she reported.

Public Health Issue

"This study suggests that poor sleep is a public health issue for universities to realistically consider having to address," Eric Zhou, PhD, clinical psychology fellow with the Perini Family Survivor's Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and research fellow with Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts, told Medscape Medical News.

"If you think about walking into a counseling center at a university or a college in this country, they will have handouts on depression, anxiety, stress, but most likely they will not have anything that discusses sleep issues," Dr. Zhou noted. "And we know, both from experience and reports, that sleep is disrupted in the college setting."

"By not addressing it, I think we are doing a disservice to students," added Dr. Zhou, who was not involved in the study.

The authors and Dr. Zhou have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

SLEEP 2014: 28th Annual Meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies. Oral Presentation: 1068. Presented June 3, 2014.

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