Can being religious make you healthier?

May 30, 2016  

Can leading a religious lifestyle make you healthier? Recent research found that women who frequently attend religious services have a lower risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer, than those who do not.

The study, reported by CBS News and published by JAMA Internal Medicine, does not prove a cause and effect relationship, but the researchers say the association appears to be strong.

Over a period of 16 years, more than 74,000 women from across the country and ranging in age from 30 to 55 filled out questionnaires in which they reported how frequently they attended religious services.

Over the course of the study period, 13,573 participants died, including 2,721 from cardiovascular disease and 4,479 from cancer.

An analysis of the data from the study showed that those who attended religious services more than once per week had a 33 percent lower risk of death compared with women who never attended religious services.

“The results suggest that there is perhaps something about the communal religious experience that is very powerful,” study author Tyler J. VanderWeele, Ph.D., of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public, told CBS News.

The researchers were able to control for a multitude of risk factors that could affect death rates, including hypertension, diabetes, alcohol consumption, smoking, diet, and physical activity, as well as age, marital status, income, and education level.

Additionally, the results showed attending religious services more than once a week was linked to a 27 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease and a 21 percent lower risk of death from cancer.

The authors say it’s important to note that the results simply show an association and do not prove that attending services improves health. Still, they have some ideas what may be behind the connection.

“I think it’s not just one thing, but a combination of factors,” VanderWeele told CBS News. “Some of it is that if you attend services you develop a community and you therefore have social support, which is beneficial both psychologically and materially for health. Also, by attending services there are certain social norms that make things like smoking less likely, which is protective for health.”

Religious services also perpetuate messages of hope and faith, which can lead to a more optimistic outlook and lower rates of depression, which can affect overall health and mortality, he said.

It should be noted that the study has several important limitations, including the fact that it consisted mainly of white Christians with similar socioeconomic status, so future research is needed to see if there is a similar connection among other populations and religions.

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