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'Freshman Blues' Can Depress Immune System

Flu shots were less effective in lonely first-year college students

FRIDAY, May 6, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The first year of college can take a toll on students' health, with a new study suggesting the stresses and loneliness experienced by many freshmen weakens their immune systems.

Lonely students had less robust immune responses to the flu shot than other students, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh report in the May issue of the journal Health Psychology.

The study involved 37 male and 46 female freshmen. Each received flu shots at a university clinic, then filled out questionnaires on their health behaviors. For two weeks, starting two days before they received the flu shot, the students recorded their feelings of loneliness, stress and mood four times a day.

For five days during that two-week period, the students also provided saliva samples to the researchers, four times a day. These samples were used to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

What the investigators described as a "weak social network" -- individuals with comparatively few close friends -- was associated with a poor immune response to the flu shot, independent of loneliness, the study found. But loneliness itself was also associated with a poor immune response to the flu shot -- for as long as four months after the shot, the researchers found.

The findings support the premise that chronic loneliness can help predict a person's health and well-being, the researchers said.

Lead researcher Sarah Pressman, a doctoral student, stressed that the number of friends a freshman has isn't always relevant to how lonely he or she might feel. "You can have very few friends but still not feel lonely," she said in a prepared statement. "Alternatively, you can have many friends, yet feel lonely."

Social factors are important for health, she added, because, "they may encourage good health behaviors such as eating, sleeping and exercising well, and they may buffer the stress response to negative events."

More information

The University of South Florida offers advice on coping with stress in college.

SOURCE: American Psychological Association, news release, May 1, 2005
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