A recent study published in the journal PLOS One has revealed that regularly attending religious ceremonies such as mass may lead to greater health and increased longevity in middle-aged people and seniors.
The researchers — based at the Emory Rollins School of Public Health in Atlanta, GA — were curious about the consequences that religious lifestyles might have on the healthspan and lifespan of middle-aged and older adults.
The paper‘s first author is Ellen L. Idler, Ph.D., a joint-appointed professor in epidemiology from the Emory Rollins School of Public Health and Samuel Candler Dobbs professor of sociology.
She explains the motivation behind the research, saying, “We wanted to link the research on religion — especially religious attendance — into the social determinants of health framework,” says Prof. Idler.
To this end, Prof. Idler and colleagues examined the data available from the Health and Retirement Study — a longitudinal study of the “health and economic circumstances” of over-50s in the United States — of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Prof. Idler and her collegues focused on the data gathered between 2004 and 2014 on more than 18,000 participants. The scientists applied Cox proportional hazards models to calculate the link between religious attendance and all-cause mortality during the decade studied.
The researchers included variables such as religious attendance, the importance of religion, and religious affiliation. Gender, race or ethnicity, education, and income were also considered as potential determinants of health.
They sum up the findings, saying, “After adjustment for confounders, attendance at religious services had a dose-response relationship with mortality, such that respondents who attended frequently [i.e., at least once a week] had a 40 [percent] lower hazard of mortality […] compared with those who never attended.”
Additionally, even people who attended religious ceremonies less often also had a lower chance of dying prematurely, compared with those who did not take part in religious services at all.
The researchers note that this positive effect on health was comparable with that of having a higher income.
However, those who considered religion “very” important had a 4 percent higher risk of mortality. All the associations found were independent of religious affiliation.
Commenting on the findings, Prof. Idler explains, “With this paper, we were able to take a theory and a conceptual framework to real data and came back with some dramatic findings.”
While this was an observational study that cannot explain causality, the authors speculate on the potential reasons for the results.
It could be the case, they write, that people who go to religious ceremonies also tend to have healthier behaviors, such as not smoking or consuming alcohol.
Benefiting from the support of a community or helping others may also be the underlying causes for the health benefits of religious ceremonies.
As for the slight increase in mortality risk found for those who consider religion very important, the authors explain, “An increased feeling of the importance of religion in old age may coincide with illness, physical decline, and a resulting need for comfort or consolation.”
“Our study highlights the benefits of including measures of religious participation as an additional social determinant of mortality, particularly in older populations.”
“This is a form of social engagement and identity that is of importance to many older persons in this sample and in the U.S. population,” they add, “and can provide a more complete picture of the social forces determining their health.”
Finally, the authors also recognize some limitations to their study. Health status, behavior, and religious attendance were all self-reported, which makes the data prone to some bias.