Does being religious make you healthier?

Seniors who attend religious services regularly tend to live longer and enjoy better health.

The percentage of Americans who say they go to church is about the same as in 1940, even though you may believe that religion is on the wane in this country.

Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup Poll, is author of a new book, God is Alive and Well. The book, he says, is grounded in more than one million Gallup interviews conducted over the years.

“There is an increasing interest in the subject among researchers and the public,” according to Susan H. McFadden, Ph.D., at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. She is co-chair of the Religion and Aging Group of the Gerontological Society on Aging, a national organization of researchers on aging.

As Newport writes in his book, one important trend that has changed from the l950s is the number of people who say “none” when asked their religion affiliation. These total about 18 percent of those polled. That doesn’t mean they are atheists, Newport explains. Only 5 percent or 6 percent say they don’t believe in God.

Despite the rise of the “nones,” Newport says religion is poised for a renaissance in America. The baby boomers “are approaching 65 to 85 years old, which we’ve seen as the most religious age group for decades.”

It’s a reasonable prediction, he said, that the huge group of boomers is going to become more religious, and because they’re so big, “they will make the country more religious in the aggregate.”

In addition, the country’s increasing Hispanic population tends to be more religious. Although the number of Catholics has been declining, the immigration of Hispanic Catholics has enabled that religion to hold its own. But there is no similar immigration of Protestants. Newport said also there has been no evidence that they have been able to evangelize Hispanics.

Another factor is that growth has been slowed by the relatively low fertility rate of many Americans. Mormonism is growing because its theology encourages large families.

Certainly you still have people who attend church regularly who engage in behavior that could be defined as sin. But more than 70 percent of Americans say they believe in God or some higher power.

C. S. Lewis, while a student at Oxford, admitted there was God, and his writings verified his belief. William F. Buckley once described Lewis as “the most convinced and convincing Christian writer of his generation.”

Aging experts will discuss religion, spirituality and aging at the GSA annual conference in November in San Francisco. Discussions will include details of the religious and spiritual dimensions of health.

One of the recent findings in religion and health is that those who attend religious services at least once a week are less likely to die in a given period of time than people who attend services less frequently. These results were published in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.

Some 4,000 North Carolina residents aged 64 to 101 were examined several years ago, according to the website WebMD. People who attended religious services at least once a week were 48 percent less likely to die during the six-year study, said the lead author of the study, psychiatrist Dr. Harold G. Koenig of Duke University Medical Center, Durham, North Carolina.

“When we controlled for such things as age, race, how sick they were and other health and social factors there was still a 28 percent reduction in mortality.” He added that the regular churchgoers had a reduction in their mortality rate comparable to smokers and those who don’t smoke.

Other studies, WebMD said, have shown that churchgoers experience lower levels of depression and anxiety, and display signs of better health. Not only do they say they feel better they also have lower blood pressure and fewer strokes.

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