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A Look At Frosh Health Behaviors

December 1, 1998

Judith Zwolak

When it comes to alcohol consumption, freshman women at Tulane are catching up to their male counterparts, according to preliminary results of a psychology department study.

"At the beginning of the first semester of freshman year, the women consumed a lot less alcohol on a weekly basis than the men," says study investigator Melanie McGrath, assistant professor of psychology. "But, by the end of the semester, the women had increased their alcohol consumption so that they were no longer significantly different from the men."

These preliminary findings are from McGrath's study on health behavior changes of college students at Tulane. McGrath began the study by mailing questionnaires to all incoming freshmen in fall 1997. The study looks at drinking, smoking, drug use, sexual activity, diet and exercise.

"The first year of college is such a vulnerable time, a time of transition, and the college years set a lot of health habits for our youth," McGrath says. "I thought that this was a good place to look at the development of health habits and health- risk behaviors and how young men and women differ in this process."

The study is longitudinal in design, meaning researchers collect data from the same people over a period of time. This feature sets the study apart from other research on the health behaviors of college students, McGrath says.

"A longitudinal analysis allows you to see the order in which changes occur," she says. "We know that people who smoke don't exercise as much as people who don't smoke. But we don't know which came first--the smoking or the lack of exercise. A longitudinal analysis will allow me to look at those things."
McGrath bases her preliminary results on data collected at three separate times. In the beginning of the fall 1997 semester, she received 380 responses to the 20-page questionnaire she sent out. At the end of that semester, 200 students returned the questionnaires.

She is currently compiling the data from the third collection period at the end of the spring 1998 semester. To entice students to remain in the study, McGrath rewards them with five "PJ's Bucks" from the PJ's Coffee and Tea Cafi and holds a drawing for $200 at each data collection.

The study receives funding from Tulane College, the dean of student affairs, the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women and the Newcomb Foundation. In addition to the surprising information on alcohol consumption, McGrath also found that a much higher percentage of women (35 percent) reported smoking when they entered college than men (13 percent).

"I was struck by this finding," she says. "The number of women smoking was higher than the national average, which is about a quarter of the population."

Another finding showed women reported an increase in smoking for appetite and weight control, while men reported a decrease in smoking for these reasons during the first semester. Women also reported smoking to relieve stress more than the men in the study did.

McGrath also looked at the levels of stress in the students' lives and found that freshmen across the board reported more positive life changes than negative ones during the first semester, but rated these positive events as more stressful.

"When you think about it, this makes sense," McGrath says. "One of the most exciting times in your life is when you go to college, but it's also potentially the most stressful." The study also revealed that women reported more negative stressful events than men during their first semester of college.

Eventually, McGrath hopes to follow the students throughout the four years of college and use the information gathered to design ways to prevent students from forming risky health habits. "The ultimate goal is to be able to develop programs that would identify those at high risk [of acquiring poor health habits] and develop gender-specific intervention programs," she says.

McGrath and psychology graduate student Germaine Allison will present preliminary findings of the study at a psychology colloquium on noon, Friday, Dec. 4, in Stibbs Room A, University Center.

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