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The Hidden Threat to College Students

Remember when getting ready for a new school year was as easy as finding the perfect backpack?

After high school graduation, "back to school" takes on a whole new meaning. As young adults prepare for college life, parents should make sure their teens are armed with more than just good study habits. Along with a good work ethic, young adults need the tools to take care of their heart health – a concern many parents overlook in this young age group.

A study published in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that more than half of young adults ages 18-24 have at least 1 risk factor for coronary artery disease, and nearly 1 in 4 have advanced atherosclerotic lesions, or plaque buildup, in their arteries.

"We're seeing more of these symptoms in a younger population," says cardiologist Ashley Simmons, MD, of The University of Kansas Health System. "It coincides with the epidemic we're seeing in obesity and diabetes, both of which tie back to poor lifestyle habits. For many young adults, this is their first time living on their own, and they might not be making healthy choices."

The pizza problem

Research has shown the "freshman 15" isn't just a myth, and it doesn't only affect freshmen. A study published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism followed college students over the course of 4 years and found that 70% gained weight by the end of the study. The number of participants classified as overweight or obese increased from 18% to 31%.

"It may be something they think they can take care of down the road," Dr. Simmons says. "The thing is, we're seeing the manifestations of bad lifestyle habits earlier. This includes an increase in problems like sleep apnea, high blood pressure and pre-diabetes – problems that can largely be prevented through better, healthier habits."

And with convenience food, alcohol and sugary drinks as diet staples for many college students, unhealthy habits can easily become normalized.

"It can be easy to fall into bad habits. There needs to be an overall focus on healthy choices," Dr. Simmons says. "That doesn't mean a ban on all fast food, but rather, an emphasis on healthy eating patterns and physical activity the majority of the time."

Parents can take the lead by sharing some practical goals with their teens. When your kids head to college or move out on their own for the first time, emphasize some everyday ways to live healthy:

  • Walk to class or work
  • Exercise regularly at a campus or community gym
  • Limit alcohol
  • Do not smoke, and limit your exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Eat reasonable portions at each meal
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Get adequate sleep
  • Learn strategies to manage stress

Preparation as prevention

Parents can give their teens a valuable start by teaching good heart-healthy habits.

"Make good health habits part of the discussion when you address issues such as academic expectations, drugs, alcohol and birth control," says Dr. Simmons. "This is another one of the truly big discussions that can really impact a young person's life."

Back-to-school season is also a good time to see a primary care physician and make sure vaccines and other health concerns are taken care of. For young adults with existing cardiovascular risk factors or a family history of coronary artery disease, it may also be a good time to check blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure levels.

"For students, consider college a learning experience for how you want to take care of yourself for the rest of your life," says Dr. Simmons.

Group of friends eating pizza.

For students, consider college a learning experience for how you want to take care of yourself for the rest of your life. – Ashley Simmons, MD

Variety of fresh vegetables.

At the heart of healthy living is healthy eating

Remind your college-aged son or daughter to follow some basic daily guidelines:

  • Eat fruits and vegetables
  • Eat whole grains
  • Include plenty of fiber in your diet
  • Limit soft drinks, candy and other sweets
  • Limit fast food and junk food
  • Avoid sugary/flavored coffee drinks

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