This Post is Sick!

By Timothy Dowling and Paul A. Djupe

Illness is as much of a part of the college experience as the classes, the long hours in the library, and the weekend nights out spent with friends. We all know the feeling of waking up with a scratchy throat and a stuffy knows, knowing that a week’s worth of tissues, cough drops, and vitamin- c and awaits us. At Denison, and at most colleges, it seems unavoidable. You can exercise, wash your hands compulsively, get your 8 hours a night, and still end up sick. Denison has a growing and increasingly diverse student body, spanning all kinds of geographic and cultural backgrounds. This is one of the things that makes our little college on the hill so exceptional – but also makes it a perfect petri dish. As students return to campus after the summer and other breaks, they bring with them an array of nasty bugs.

In order to understand this omnipresent aspect of our campus, we asked students in our March 2019 survey whether or not they had been sick with an illness that was bad enough to have them miss at least one class. This revealed that 54 percent of students have had some sort of significant sickness during this semester. However, we wanted to take a deeper look, to see where sickness happens.

Last semester, Tim Dowling went through the laborious task of geocoding buildings on campus, allowing data from these surveys to be plotted on each building on campus. When plotted, we see that there largely an absence of a clear geographic trend. There aren’t any particularly “sick” quads, nor are there any healthier ones (though South Quad looks to be lower – only 40% of SQ respondents were sick). There are many assumptions about sickness patterns that one could make, such as assuming that freshman who live on West Quad are more sick because they have less immunity, or those juniors who live on East Quad would be sick in bed, dealing with all those germs they brought back with them from abroad. However, these assumptions don’t really seem to hold up. That said, there is considerable variation across particular dorms as you can see below.

We also decided to zoom in to the Quads so you could take a closer look (below).

But let’s examine more directly the folklore that newbies are more likely to get sick and that the veterans develop an immunity to the bugs going around. Let’s dispense with that myth right now – there’s no evidence to support it. As the figure below shows, women are more likely than men to say they’ve been sick to the point of missing class, but those figures are effectively constant across class years. Just over 60 percent of women said they were sick, while about 50 percent of men said so (that difference is statistically significant).

Instead, getting sick is more about the kind of lifestyle you choose to live. Interestingly enough sleep has no effect on the likelihood of getting sick, but time spent partying sure does. In those densely packed rooms, with people standing only inches apart, and with drinks and juuls being passed around and shared like candy, this comes at no surprise. The other factor we should consider is arguably the opposite pole from partying – getting good grades. The figure below visualizes how these work together. Among those who don’t spend time partying, GPA is a strong determinant of getting sick – only 40 percent of those with a 4.0 got sick, while 80 percent of those with a C average got sick. But the amount of time spent partying eats into the advantage of a high GPA. Partying boosts the illness rate of every group, but none more than the top students (yeah, there are no 4.0 students who party 10 hours a day, so don’t get any ideas) – they get sick at the same rates as all the other heavy partiers.

Illin’ is part of the college experience. You can drink all the water, be careful with doorknobs, eat right, and sleep and still get sick. It’s almost unavoidable when surrounded by 2,300 people with connections from all over the earth and who may not be following the same protocols as you. Illness will spread. While some of this is geographical destiny, quite a lot of the probability of getting sick depends on personal choices. Putting your nose in a book is probably the best choice you can make to avoid illness, but so is avoiding using your nose to acquire the bouquet of lots of awful American mass-market lager. This also reveals why sleep is not a good predictor of getting sick. There are a lot of reasons why people sleep certain amounts – one for health and another to recover from the previous night. We’re better off thinking about health through the lens of the goals you have and the behaviors you pursue.

Tim Dowling is a rising junior who loves to tediously make maps to try and see where he should avoid so not to catch a cold. You can find him this summer in his backyard playing with his dog , while also interning at Booz Allen Hamilton.

Paul A. Djupe is a local cyclist who coincidentally has taught social science research methods at Denison for millenia. He started a few years ago in a bid to subsidize collective action.

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