It’s a common misconception that college students are not at risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD). Although youth may serve as a distraction, college students are just as susceptible to heart problems and heart conditions as any age group. Heart attacks and conditions can occur at any age, and undetected or ignored warning signs can lead to bigger problems. Regardless of physical condition, students need to be more aware of how their actions and environments can impact their heart health. Here are some contributing factors and ways to change behavior for long-term heart health.
How sleep affects heart function
It should come as no surprise that college students aren’t prime subjects for perfect sleep regimens. Whether it’s all-night study, gaming or party sessions, sleep is generally the last concern for most college students. Despite college students being recommended to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep a night, more than half of all college students are estimated to get less than 7 hours per night. A lack of sleep is attributed to influencing a variety of conditions, such as high blood pressure, obesity and type-2 diabetes, that can indirectly or directly affect the heart’s ability to function properly.
Diet and heart health
Due to academic demands, social influences and limited budgets, college students often opt for a less healthy option, such as fast food. Unfortunately, these factors lead to the average college student consuming fast food 1-3 times per week and having only one serving of fruits and vegetables per day. Foods high in salt, sugar and saturated fats, as in traditional fast food, are associated with increased rates of heart disease, heart attacks and stroke, while fruits and vegetables are recommended for their higher mineral, vitamin and fiber contents that help in heart functioning.
Further, about 70 percent of students entering college report using alcohol, tobacco and marijuana during the entry period and transitional period of college, while 33 percent of college students are considered binge drinkers. Excess alcohol consumption has been linked to high blood pressure and heart failure as well as cardiomyopathy. While tobacco consumption, particularly through smoking, can restrict lung and arterial capacity and heart functioning, leading to cardiovascular disease.
A sedentary lifestyle
While poor eating habits may not be as impactful for youthful metabolisms, many succumb to the more sedentary college life which exacerbates other factors influencing heart health. Although exercise rates can vary from campus to campus, NYU reports that more than half of its student body is not exercising sufficiently, leading to roughly 25% of the student body being overweight; a factor directly attributed with heart health.
Alarmingly, those who are most obese face a nine-fold increase in the likelihood of heart failure in addition to worsening other heart-impeding conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes, indicating that any weight gain above healthy levels can hurt your heart.
Why college students should talk to their physician about heart health
Heart disease is often regarded as a silent killer because of its long onset and the multiple factors that cause it. Unfortunately, we’re seeing increasing rates of heart disease in young adults due to the confluence of factors like diet, stress and lack of exercise.
Stress can be directly linked to increasing blood pressure and other cardiovascular events that affect heart health. Shockingly, 8 in 10 college students report feelings of frequent stress, with 34 percent reporting feelings of anxiety due to homesickness, social anxiety and academic demands.
As more than half of all young adults aged 18-24 show at least one risk factor for coronary heart disease, including obesity, hyperlipidemia and atherosclerosis, regular check-ups with their doctor can serve as an important strategy in preventing the onset of more serious conditions or detecting them early if they do arise.
Preventative strategies for college students to maintain heart health
While coronavirus-related stress added to the burden affecting college students and their heart health, incorporating healthy practices into their lifestyle can help ensure long-term heart health. Here are some healthy practices that can help ensure optimal heart health:
- Exercise regularly: Get at least 30 minutes of moderate cardiovascular exercise everyday, which can range from brisk walking to running, aerobics or high intensity sports; make sure to stretch properly to avoid injury.
- Choose healthy food options: Consume at least 2-3 servings of fruit or vegetables each day, replacing less healthy snacks (chips, pretzels, soda), with healthier options (apple, banana, smoothie, nuts). For those who have difficulty keeping track of food choices, a food journal will help to visualize the quantity, quality and timing of food eaten.
- Sleep longer: Make sure to get an adequate amount of sleep each day. Getting at least 7-9 hours is essential for maintaining adequate immune and neurological functionality to concentrate and perform optimally.
- Manage stress: Practice meditation, read a book, listen to soothing music or find some quiet time to decompress. For students struggling with anxiety or depression, talking with a school counselor can help to develop coping skills.
It’s never too early to develop healthy heart habits. In addition to the tips noted above, students should talk to their primary care doctor about long-term heart health and recommended lifestyle behaviors to adopt based on health history and goals.