In the study, researchers from the Human Population Laboratories
of the Public Health Institute and the California Department of Health
Services, and from the University of California, Berkeley, found that
people who attended religious services once a week had significantly
lower risks of death compared with those who attended less frequently
or never, even after adjusting for age, health behaviors and other
risk factors. The study will be published April 4 in the International
Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine.
"We found this difference even after adjusting for factors such as
social connections and health behaviors, including smoking and exercising,"
said Doug Oman, lead author of the study and a lecturer at UC Berkeley's
School of Public Health. "The fact that the risk of death by several
different causes is lower for those who attend religious services every
week suggests that we should look to some psychological factor for
answers. Maybe frequent attendees experience a greater sense of inner
peace, perhaps because they can draw upon religious coping practices
to help them deal with stressful events."
Oman conducted the study while he was a research scientist at the
Public Health Institute and a post-doctoral researcher at UC Berkeley's
School of Public Health.
Researchers specifically looked at the risk of death from certain
diseases, including cancer and heart disease. While they found no significant
difference for risk of death by cancer, they did find that people who
attended religious services less than once a week or never had a 21
percent greater overall risk of dying, as well as a 21 percent greater
risk of dying from circulatory diseases.
There was also a strong trend towards lower mortality from respiratory
and digestive diseases, although there is more of a possibility that
chance might have played a role in producing those results. When compared
with weekly attendees, those who attended less than weekly or never
had a 66 percent greater risk of dying from respiratory diseases and
a 99 percent greater risk of dying from digestive diseases.
Adherents to Christian religions made up the bulk of the study participants,
with 51.9 percent reporting themselves to be liberal Protestants. Twenty-seven
percent of the participants were Roman Catholics and 2.5 percent were
Jewish. Members of other Western religions made up 7.2 percent of the
group, while those practicing non-Western religions made up 0.8 percent
of the group. Those with no religious affiliations comprised 10.6 percent
of the study participants.
Oman said there are still unanswered questions he hopes will be addressed
in future studies, including the significance of spirituality or devoutness.
"Several non-Western religions, including Buddhism, place less emphasis
on going to a temple or church," he said. "So people of those faiths
may be just as devout in their tradition, and that may revolve around
a household shrine. They may go to a temple only a few times a year,
but they could still be getting the psychological benefits of inner
Still, Oman said this study adds to a growing body of evidence that
religious practices are generally linked to better health. He also
pointed out that this study is one of the few that has investigated
the relationships between religious involvement and several specific
causes of death.
Prior studies of Mormons and Seventh Day Adventists noted that beneficial
health behaviors, such as abstention from smoking and high fat diets,
were strongly integrated in their beliefs. Past studies have also associated
positive health effects with the high level of social support found
in religious communities.
"The picture that is developing is that religious activity is affecting
health through several pathways," said Oman. "Whether it is encouraging
better health habits such as exercising, providing a strong social
support network, providing a sense of psychological well-being, or
all those factors combined, it seems clear that the effects of faith
deserves more study."
The researchers used data taken over 31 years from a longitudinal
survey of 6,545 adult residents from California's Alameda County. Researchers
from the state health department began the survey, which is ongoing,
to study the interrelationships among health status and social, familial,
environmental and other factors.
Although the study only looked at residents of Alameda County, Oman
said the area's ethnic diversity and mix of rural, suburban and urban
neighborhoods make the findings relevant to communities throughout
the United States.
Data was obtained through mailed questionnaires or through interviews
in the participants' homes. Participants aged 21 and over at the start
of the study in 1965 were questioned again in 1974, 1983 and 1994.
Death records were obtained from state and federal mortality files
Co-authors of the study are William Strawbridge and Richard Cohen
from the Public Health Institute, and John Kurata from the California
Department of Health Services.
The study was supported by grants from the National Institute of
Aging, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, and the California
Department of Health Services.