Reports are out today describing a scientific study that actually shows a very significant benefit from regular attendance at religious services. It doesn't matter which faith you might be, but the very fact that you attend and participate in an organized religion appears to put you one-up on non-believers.
This work, published by researchers at Yeshiva University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, suggests that regular attendance at religious services reduces the risk of death by approximately 20 percent. The findings, published in Psychology and Health, were based on data drawn from participants who spanned numerous religious denominations.
Dr. Eliezer Schnall, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor at Yeshiva University, and Dr. Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at Einstein, combined their resources in this study of the Women's Health Initiative (WHI). The WHI is a national, long-term study aimed at addressing women's health issues and funded by the National Institutes of Health.
It was one of those really, really large studies -- the kind that often produce the most convincing results. In this case, the researchers evaluated the religious practices of more than 92,000 post-menopausal women participating in the NIH's study. They examined the prospective association of religious affiliation, religious service attendance, and strength and comfort derived from religion with subsequent cardiovascular events and overall rates of death. The study showed as much as a 20 percent decrease in the overall risk of mortality for those attending religious services; however, for a reason that is not clear, it did not show any consistent change in rates of morbidity and death specifically related to cardiovascular disease.
Scientists adjusted their study for participation of individuals within communal organizations and group activities that promote a strong social life and enjoyable routines, behaviors known to lead to overall wellness. However, even after controlling for such behavior and other health-related factors, the improvements in morbidity and mortality rates exceeded expectations.
One of the authors commented, "Interestingly, the protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained," and further, "There is something here that we don't quite understand. It is always possible that some unknown or unmeasured factors confounded these results."
Study participants were generally aged 50 to 79, and were recruited on a voluntary basis from a variety of sources, from all over the nation. The women answered questions about baseline health conditions and religiosity and were followed by WHI researchers for an average of 7.7 years, with potential study outcomes of cardiovascular events and mortality adjudicated by trained physicians.
More work is in the cards, because investigators are considering doing an analysis of psychological profiles for study participants to determine if this can help to explain the apparent protective effects of attending religious services. Oddly enough, researchers don't want to leave it a religious mystery.