College students may be ignoring the threat of heart disease

In a groundbreaking study, a former Arizona State University student found college students may be ignoring the threat of heart disease and putting themselves at risk.

Barrett Honors College graduate Kristina Collins conducted the survey as part of her honors thesis. Her thesis, “Heart Disease Awareness Among College Students,” has been published in the October issue of Journal of Community Health.

According to the study, just one-quarter of college students correctly identified heart disease as the most common cause of death for women.

Most students cited cancer as their greatest health concern. Collins says this is explained by the focus on medical issues such as AIDS and breast cancer by the media. She says the media has diverted attention away from the risk of heart disease.

Collins credits her experience at ASU and her honors adviser, microbiologist Kenneth Mossman, for making the research project possible.

Collins is a second-year medical student on full-tuition scholarship at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

“ASU really played a key role in this project,” she says. “The faculty was so supportive. Teachers allowed me to come in and survey their students during class time. Without that, I never could have achieved such a high response rate.”

Collins surveyed more than 1,400 students at ASU on their attitudes about heart disease risks and preventative measures. Through a series of 35 open-ended questions, she determined that college students are generally not well-informed about heart disease.

“The study is important because it is one of the largest of its kind,” says Mossman, professor of health sciences and Collins’ former adviser. “(It) reveals that college students are not well-informed … and engage in activities that may increase some risk factors.”

Larry Woodruff, professor of exercise and wellness, says it’s important for college students to understand the risk factors associated with heart disease.

“The No. 1 risk factor is smoking and tobacco use, followed by physical inactivity,” Woodruff says. He also cites poor nutrition, high blood pressure, stress and heavy alcohol consumption as activities that can increase the risk of heart disease.

“Students are setting lifestyle, eating and activity patterns,” Woodruff says. “The impacts these habits have can be tragic or beneficial.”

Collins says she was somewhat surprised by the results. According to her study, students were generally unaware of increased risk factors, such as the simultaneous use of oral contraceptives and cigarettes. It also showed that students did not generally take precautionary health measures, including having their blood cholesterol level checked.

“One of the most interesting things I found was that women and minorities did not identify themselves at high risk for heart disease,” Collins says.

As part of her study, Collins calls for increased education of college students about heart disease prevention. To improve student awareness, Collins suggests implementing educational programs targeted at young adults to emphasize the role of diet and exercise in prevention of heart disease.

“Although serious heart disease is rare among college students, … controlling risks at an early age can have significant health benefits years later,” Mossman says.

Karen Moses, assistant director of health education for ASU Student Health and Wellness, says many programs exist on campus, but that students may not be taking advantage of them.

“There are a variety of programs on campus that are trying to teach students how to lead a healthy lifestyle,” Moses says. “We offer programs on managing stress, smoking cessation, fitness and nutrition. We help them develop behaviors that contribute to preventing heart disease.”

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