Study says chronic illnesses contracted in college affect GPAs

Cristina de la Guardia was halfway through her first semester at TCU when she began experiencing severe headaches accompanied by nausea and vertigo.

Her symptoms were caused by hydrocephalus, a chronic condition characterized by an excessive accumulation of fluid in the brain. De la Guardia was first diagnosed with hydrocephalus when she was 6 years old, and she an operation to install a shunt, which is a tube that allows the excess fluid to drain from her brain.

That October, something went wrong with de la Guardia’s shunt, forcing her to take the rest of the semester off to go home for medical tests and observations.

When she came back, de la Guardia said she struggled to make up the work from her first semester courses while taking new classes as well. Doing so “definitely” affected her GPA, she said.

“I got a C in all the classes I got incompletes in,” de la Guardia said. “Handling eight classes in one semester was taking my focus in different directions.”

De la Guardia is not the only student to have health problems impact her academic performance. A recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Boynton Health Service found that Minnesota undergraduate students who had been diagnosed with a chronic or acute health problem within the past 12 months reported a lower mean GPA on average than students who had not. The GPAs of students who had been previously diagnosed with a chronic health problem, but said it did not affect them academically, were similar to those of students without a chronic health problem. On average, students who had been diagnosed with a chronic health problem within the past 12 months reported a mean GPA of 3.21. Students who had been diagnosed with a chronic illness more than a year ago reported a mean GPA of 3.26 as did students who had never been diagnosed with a chronic health problem.

Karen Bell-Morgan, the assistant dean of Campus Life in charge of health promotion, said the study’s findings did not surprise her.

“If the chronic condition was diagnosed before going to school, and they have it under control, then a lot of times students don’t have any problems,” Bell-Morgan said. “A lot of times, when you’re dealing with a chronic condition, the first few months of being diagnosed is just a lot of what medication works best for you, what medication doesn’t work best for you… It can definitely be a hardship on students.”

Bell-Morgan said students with health problems that might affect their academic performance should set up an appointment with the Campus Life office, which can help with resources needed for success.

The data contained in “Health and Academic Performance: Minnesota Undergraduate Students” is based on survey responses from about 10,000 students at 14 different colleges and universities in Minnesota. The survey addressed physical and mental health issues and included questions related to how students’ physical and mental health impacted their academic performance. It also contained questions about health-related behavior like exercise habits and alcohol consumption.

For the most part, the study confirmed the validity of advice students’ parents have been doling out for decades.

Students who reported receiving four or more nights of “adequate sleep” the week before taking the survey had higher mean GPAs than their sleep-deprived counterparts, researchers reported. They also found “strong relationships” between students’ academic performance and the number of hours per day they spent watching TV or using the computer for reasons other than schoolwork. The students with the highest GPAs were the ones who didn’t watch TV or waste time on the computer at all.

However, the study also produced some unexpected results, Katherine Lust, Boynton Heath Service’s research director, said. She said she was surprised that the study showed no correlation between a student’s GPA and the number of hours he or she worked for pay.

“The other thing that surprised me was that there was no relationship found among perceived level of stress,” Lust said. “Where the relationship was found was relative to ability to manage stress.”

Lust said she thinks the study demonstrates the importance of spending time wisely.

“Are you choosing to spend a lot of time on the computer playing video games, not studying? Are you choosing to engage in high-risk drinking?” she said. “This really speaks to some things that the individual could choose or not choose that impact their grade point average.”