The researchers based their study on the "Women's Health Initiative" observational study involving 92,539 postmenopausal females. These older women came from a wide range of society including several income levels, ethnic backgrounds and religions. The researchers deliberately did not verify the women's religions.
Lead researcher, Eliezer Schnall, said:
"We looked at a number of psychological factors; optimism, depression, cynical hostility, and a number of subcategories and subscales involving social support and social strain.
The link between religious activity and health is most evident in women, specifically older women."
Schnall added that they concentrated on this group of people because females have longer lifespans than men, and seniors are a growing group.
The researchers mentioned several aspects of support which likely contribute to people's attitude, such as being able to sit with a priest, minister or rabbi and talk about things (informational and emotional support), being taken to get to see a doctor by somebody (tangible support), as well as affectionate support and a positive interaction between parishioners.
The authors wrote that previous studies had shown that being a regular participant in religious services helps enhance social interaction.
Schnall and team also looked into potential social strains, or negative factors which might be linked to frequent religious service attendance. As with medications which help treat illnesses, there are sometimes undesirable side effects or adverse events, they explained.
They set out to determine whether there might be some social strains associated with religious associations, networks or religious identification. Perhaps a support system might discourage links with others not of the same beliefs. Maybe some religious allegiances and obligations may be a source of marital problems or general disagreements with friends and relatives.
Surprisingly, they found that frequent temple goers (church, synagogue, mosque, etc.) "were significantly more likely to report higher than media level of overall social support," irrespective of how often they attended services. The women who went to religious services at least once a week had a 54% higher chance of scoring well in social support.
"We looked at the religious practices of nearly 100,000 women and -- like it or not -- found a strong connection between going to church or synagogue or any other house of worship and a positive outlook on life."
In an interview with Reuters, Schnall said:
"The person who says, 'I guess if I go to services, that will make me more optimistic' - while a possibility, that may not be true. There is a correlation, but that does not mean there is causality. One could argue people who are more optimistic may be drawn to religious services."
The authors added that as the study only focused on older females, nobody knows whether the same applies to males or younger individuals.
The study was funded by the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute of the NIH NIH (National Institutes of Health).