College freshies show weaker immune responses

Being a college freshie may have more ramifications than being lonely and missing Mum's cooking, according to a new study at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh which shows that first-year students had a weaker immune response to the flu shot than did other students, and confirms suspicions that going to college challenges both mind and body.

The research team, led by doctoral student Sarah Pressman and pioneering health psychologist Sheldon Cohen, PhD, also found that social isolation, measured by the size of a student's social network, and feelings of loneliness each independently compromised the students' immunity showing that both objective and subjective aspects of social life appear tb be related to health.

The students, 37 men and 46 women, mostly 18-19 years old, were recruited in their first term at Carnegie Mellon. They were given their first-ever flu shots at a university clinic and filled out questionnaires on health behaviour. For two weeks starting two days before vaccination, they carried palm computers that prompted them four times a day to register their momentary sense of loneliness, stress levels and mood. For five days during that period, they also collected saliva samples four times a day to measure levels of the stress-hormone cortisol.

In the multi-faceted study, to assess loneliness, the students completed questionnaires at the start of the study and during the four-month follow-up. The researchers calculated social-network size at initial stage by having the students provide the names of up to 20 people they knew well and with whom they were in contact at least once a month.

Blood samples taken just before the flu shot were assessed and one month and four months later taken again and tested for antibody levels, which indicated how well the students' immune systems responded to the multi-strain flu vaccine, which included three different antigens.

A significant level of statistical information linked poor social ties and feelings of loneliness with poorer immune response to one component of the vaccine. Loneliness was also associated with a poorer immune response to the same strain as late as four months after the shot and supports current research which argues that chronic loneliness can help to predict health and well-being.

Pressman says this supports the view that social-network size and loneliness are factors in immunity, she says a person can have very few friends but still not feel lonely and alternatively have many friends yet still feel lonely.

The research does help to explain why first-year students tend to visit student health centers more than older classmates and can be socially adrift at times as they adjust to their new circumstances.

The researchers will continue to study these interrelated variables to better understand how social factors can alter immunity. They speculate that stress may be a factor because loneliness is stressful and stress impairs health.

Pressman says the findings reinforce the knowledge that social factors are important for health partly because they may encourage good health behaviours such as eating, sleeping and exercising well, and they may buffer the stress response to negative events.

The study appears in the May issue of Health Psychology, which is published by the American Psychological Association (APA).

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