Chronic diseases such as high cholesterol and hypertension are widespread among US college undergraduates, a new study suggests.

The survey of more than 800 18-24 year-olds at University of New Hampshire found that 8% had metabolic syndrome – the combination of risk factors that is considered a precursor to heart disease.

In addition, at least one-third of the students, all of whom were enrolled in a general-education nutrition course, were overweight or obese – 60% of men had high blood pressure and more than two-thirds of women were not meeting their nutritional needs for iron, calcium or folate. “They’re not as healthy as they think they are,” said study leader Ingrid Lofgren.

Students completed questionnaires on their lifestyle behaviours and dietary habits, chronicling their smoking, exercise, alcohol consumption, and consumption of fruits and vegetables. Their body mass index was calculated and their waist circumference was measured, and they were screened for blood pressure as well as glucose, triglycerides, total cholesterol, and high-density cholesterol. The students also completed a three-day food diary and analysed their calories, carbohydrates, and nutrient intakes with nutrition software.

The researchers say that many of the students were shocked by the results and the findings contradict the notion that college students are at the peak of health. Metabolic syndrome – a cluster of five risk factors (high blood pressure, excess abdominal fat, high blood glucose, high triglycerides,

and low HDL or “good” cholesterol) that predicts the future development of heart disease and diabetes – was particularly prevalent in males.

In addition, 66% of males (compared to 50% of females) had at least one risk factor for metabolic syndrome and the vast majority of the students were not meeting nutrient recommendations on fibre, calcium and folate, while 23% of men and 34% of women participated in less than 30 minutes of activity per day. On the plus side, noted the study, not many of the students smoked.

The researchers did say that the students may be slightly healthier than their peers, as national rates of being overweight and obese in this group are close to 40% but as another of the researchers, Dr Joanne Burke, said, “these individuals, if they continue on this trajectory, are going to be much more of a health burden at age 50 than their parents are”.

The researchers hope that their findings will inform education policy, in terms of reducing portion size in dining halls to the introduction of routine blood pressure screenings for students. By Michael Day