Religion May Help Extend Your Life

Regular attendance is key, researchers say, but they don't know why

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By Serena Gordon
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 26 (HealthDay News) -- Attending a weekly religious service, regardless of your faith, may lower your risk of death by 20 percent compared to people who don't attend services, researchers are reporting.

"Religion is always a hot topic, but particularly now, when people are perhaps in fear because of the recession and the threat of terrorism, people are looking for stability, and religion is something we find people reach out to for that stability. And, we see some health benefits here," said the study's lead author, Eliezer Schnall, a clinical assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva College at Yeshiva University in New York City.

"Maybe it's the sense of community, or the support, or maybe people are less depressed when they join in religious services," he said, adding that the researchers tried to control the data to account for many of these factors, but "we have not completely explained it all."

Results of the study were published in the current issue of the journal Psychology and Health.

The study participants came from the large Women's Health Initiative observational study, and included nearly 95,000 women from all over the United States. The women were all between 50 and 79 years old at the start of the study.

When the study began, each woman filled out extensive questionnaires regarding health history, health behaviors, psychosocial factors, demographics and religion. Medical information was obtained yearly for each study volunteer, and the average follow-up time was 7.7 years.

Before adjusting the data, there was no significant difference in the risk of death between regular religious service attendees and those who chose not to attend. Schnall noted that there were many reasons why this could be so. But the main reason, he said, could be that people who go to religious services every week may be in better physical shape. "Maybe they're just healthy enough to go to services," he said.

When the researchers adjusted the data to account for physical health, age, ethnicity, income, education, social support, important life events and life satisfaction, they found that weekly religious service attendance was responsible for a 20 reduction in the risk of death. Attending less than once a week was responsible for a 15 percent drop in the risk of death.

But, attending religious services didn't improve the risk of death from cardiovascular disease or improve heart outcomes, the study found.

Although the study noted a decreased risk of death, Schnall wouldn't say that the prescription for good health is to attend religious services regularly.

"I'm not saying our study yields such a prescription, but our findings are intriguing and we do at least have some ideas of why there is a benefit, but we have not completely explained it all," he said.

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, founder and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center, called the new research "a very well-done study that provides good, well-controlled evidence that religious attendance is related to lower mortality."

"And, they [the researchers] show it's not just the social factor, it's not just the behavioral factors, and it's not just that some people might be too sick to be able to go to church. The researchers controlled well for these, though they still don't explain it all at the end," said Koenig.

"But," he added, "that doesn't mean there are supernatural effects, just that we don't fully understand the mechanism by which religion does this yet."

More information

Read about another study on religion and health at the American Heart Association.

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