Religious beliefs linked to healthier lives

What are the physical effects of religious faith?

A study tracking 20,000 Americans found that white people who attended church regularly lived an average of seven years longer than their counterparts who didn’t go to church. And churchgoing black people lived an average of 14 years longer.

The relationship between religious faith and health has been analyzed in thousands of studies in recent years, according to Harold G. Koenig, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University.

“People who feel their life is part of a larger plan and are guided by their spiritual values have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, a lower risk of heart attack and cancer, and heal faster and live longer,” he said.

Although there is no exact or specific means of measuring the degree of faith a person has, research does show that people who attend church or temple or mosque at least four times a month tend to avoid risky behavior or being depressed.

Dr. Koenig adds, “It’s the sense that God has a purpose for humanity, and that each of us has a special role in that divine plan.”

Religion seems to “soothe the body as well as the soul,” according to WebMD. The people most involved in their religious beliefs were 29 percent more likely still to be alive than their nonreligious counterparts, according to a review of 40 scientific studies of the elderly, the health information website said.

The researcher involved in those studies acknowledged that it was unclear exactly how religious involvement seems to boost good health.

Michael E. McCullough, PhD, who conducted the research while at the National Institute for Health Research, told WebMD, “Some people believe that religious involvement instills healthy beliefs and behaviors. They also receive a lot of positive and social support that helps them cope with stress.” McCullough is associate professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

He said, “Religion helps people to develop a coherent set of beliefs about the world that helps them make sense of their stress and suffering” These links “are probably at least partially responsible” for the connection between religious involvement and health.

More than 90 percent of American adults are affiliated with some formal religion and nearly 96 percent say they believe in God or some universal spirit.

In the spiritual studies, the link was examined between religious involvement and morality. Involved were 120,000 people, many of them seniors. Information was collected on how often participants attended church or temple, whether they were a member of a religious organization, and how much time they spent in religious activities.

The research also assessed how frequently they prayed in private and how they used religion as a mechanism for coping with problems.

Redford Williams, MD, director of the behavioral medicine research center at Duke University Medical Center at Durham, N.C., and author of the book, “Lifestyles,” told MedMD “At least part of what is going on is social support. The health-advancing effects of social support are well documented.”

Why do older folks who go to religious services seem to live longer and have better health? Is it related to their attendance at churches or synagogues, where they have increased contact with people with like interests?

It’s not simply “finding religion” late in life as the end seems closer. Instead, it may be that being involved in religious activities makes seniors feel better emotionally, helping them live longer in better health.

“There’s increasing interest in the subject among researchers and the public,” according to Susan H. McFadden, PhD, at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. She is co-chair of the religion and aging interest group of the Gerontological Society on Aging (GSA), a national organization of researchers on aging.

Even people who don’t think of themselves as particularly religious can benefit from the findings of research into this area of spirituality and aging, according to Harry R. Moody, PhD, a gerontologist and author of The Five Stages of the Soul.

“The message isn’t: Go back to church and you’ll live a long time,” Moody maintains. Joining a small prayer group unconnected with any church, practicing personal meditation, searching for personal meaning in your life as you age, forging social connections with friends and family, he suggests, may be what’s important.

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