Emory Report
May 9, 2005
Volume 57, Number 30


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May 9, 2005
Godspeed and good health, Class of 2005

Michael Johns is executive vice president for health affairs.

At this time of year, I often find myself wondering about the future of the brand new graduates we are about to dispatch from our campus brandishing Emory degrees. What lies in store for them in this 21st century? And, more to the point, given that we are one of the nation’s largest and most successful academic medical centers, Will they lead healthy lives?

I recently heard an interview on NPR with a college student from Washington. As a child, she had been so passionate about stopping her mother’s smoking that she flushed her cigarettes down the toilet and plastered anti-smoking stickers on her mother’s mirror. Now, years later, she had taken up smoking herself, mostly in response to what she saw her peers doing at clubs and parties.

But it was all right, she assured the interviewer—she wasn’t addicted. Another student smoker, a college sophomore, declared that she would quit when she graduated and entered the “real world.”
Will that happen?

I certainly hope so. But I am not as confident as they seem to be.

From a medical doctor’s standpoint, I have to tell them—and any student or young person who will listen—that your body and mind do not draw any distinction between what you do in college and what you do in the “real world.” Overeating, smoking, excessive drinking, substance abuse, sexually transmitted diseases or other types of preventable injuries do not distinguish between one day or the next, one sociological role or the next. Life comes at you in real time, 24/7.
But to be more optimistic, habits of safe behavior—healthy eating, moderate drinking (or none at all), regular exercise and truly recreational play—also will leave lasting impressions for the good.

As I walk across Emory’s campus and talk to our students, whether undergraduate, graduate or professional, I am impressed by their vigor. It is not surprising to learn that fully two-thirds of our undergraduates participate in intramural sports, club sports or fitness classes, according to the Office of Recreational Studies. In fact, Emory has one of the oldest intramural and club sports programs in the country, dating to 1891. This very high participation rate speaks well of our students and bodes well for their future.

At the same time, a recent Michigan State study found that only three percent of Americans engage in all four habits of a healthy lifestyle: not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, getting the recommended amount of regular exercise, and eating five fruits and vegetables every day. Three percent. We here in the “public health capital of the world” should feel chastened and sobered by that figure.

I am heartened to know that our students seem to be doing three times better than the 22 percent of Americans in this survey who reported getting regular exercise. But there are many other dimensions to health, as well.

Are we doing everything in our power to equip our students—undergraduate, graduate and professional alike—to begin their quest for a healthy and sustainable world, with a healthy and sustainable self?

Dr. Michael Huey, executive director of Student Health Services, cites findings from the American College Health Association Spring 2004 survey of more than 47,000 students on 74 campuses. Nearly 15 percent reported having been diagnosed with depression, up sharply from 10.3 percent only four years previous. Nearly one-third reported “stress” during the previous year as their greatest impediment to academic performance. Half of all men (51 percent) and a third of all women (33 percent) reported binge drinking during the previous two weeks (defined as five or more drinks at a sitting for men, four or more drinks at a sitting for women).

Colleges are not so separate from real life, after all. Real life happens on campus, every minute of every day.

A number of graduating classes have heard me quote from one of my favorite books of wisdom and hope, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, by Dr. Seuss. I can’t even think about it without smiling. So it is with vast pride, and every good wish for a happy and healthy life that I offer this closing thought to the Class of 2005: May you “join the high fliers/who soar to high heights” and do everything in your power not to get “hung up/in a prickle-ly perch.”