Put off Meeting Your Maker by Visiting Him Regularly: The Benficial Effects of Attending Church on Health

This relates to my recent posts on some social benefits of Christianity in the U.S., which were prompted by a commentor who argued that Christianity offered nothing based on his dubious representations of social science data. In this post, I look at the relationship between attendance at religious services and health.

First, to launch things off, I start with a quote from an article in the Southern Medical Journal:
The beneficial effects of church attendance on all-cause mortality rates is the most solidly established positive effect on religion and health.

"Methodologic Issues in Research on Religion and Health.” 2004, vol. 97, no. 12, pp. 1231-1241. This issue of the SMJ contained a number of articles on the relationship between religion and health.

Next, the above-referenced issue of the SMJ contained a helpful review of related studies, "Religious Involvement and Adult Mortality in the United States: Review and Perspective." 2004, vol. 97, no. 12, pp. 1223-1230.

The study reviewed a number of recent studies exploring the effect of religious involvement on health and mortality rates. They concluded that:
A large number of recent high-quality studies--using data from specific communities, from nationally representative samples, and from different demographic subpopulations--have shown that attendance is related to lower mortality risks above and beyond controls for demographic, socioeconomic, and health-related risk factors.

Since one of our current resident atheists writes about the purported horrors of living in areas of higher religiousity, I will start of with a comparison of counties of differing religiousity levels:
Recent studies indicate that counties with high concentrations of Mormons and evangelical Protestants tend to have lower suicide and/or cancer mortality rates, and those with Catholic concentrations also have lower suicide rates. In contrast, counties with concentrations of Jews, liberal Protestants (eg, Episcopalians, Presbyterians), and nonreligious persons tend to have elevated suicide and cancer mortality rates, statistically controlling for numerous covariates.

Moving on to the broader studies discussed in the article, one showed showed that "less frequent attendance at religious services was associated with 1.29 times the odds of mortality in follow-up studies compared with individuals who attend more frequently." Another using a nationally representative survey "found that individuals who reported attending at least once a month at baseline experienced a 31% to 35% decreased risk of death in the 6-year follow-up period than those who never attended, after controlling for other religion variables and a range of demographic, socioeconomic, health, and behavioral characteristics."

Some groups appear to benefit more dramatically than others. For example, another national study showed that "whereas adults 18 to 64 years of age who never attended services had more than twice the mortality risk compared with their frequently attending counterparts, adults older than 65 who never attended had just 24% higher mortality." The benefits were also more dramatic when examined by race, "Compared with black adults who reported attending services more than once a week, those who reported never attending services were more than twice as likely to die during the 8-year follow-up period, even after controlling for a range of variables."

Finally, the Institute for Behavioral Research released a study in July 2006, entitled, "Religious Attendance and U.S. Adult Cause-Specific Mortality." This study focused on the specific areas of health that were affected by religious involvement, resulting in the overall lower mortality rates. They found that, "in general, our results show that more frequent attendance at religious services is associated with lower risks of overall mortality, and with lower risks of some specific causes of death, for men and women, and for individuals in various age groups."

Among the specific health benefits, "more frequent religious attendance reduces the risk of death from such causes as circulatory diseases, respiratory diseases, infectious diseases, and lung cancer." Further, "mortality from all cancers and from non-lung cancers, show a similar relationship with religious attendance as mortality from strokes; those who attend less than once per week have lower risks of death over the follow-up period than those who attend religious more than once per week."

To quantify some of this:
  • Those who never attend church have 48% higher mortality than those who attend more than once a week.
  • The risk of dying from respiratory disease for those who never attend religious services was 2.1 times higher than for those who attend services more than once per week.
  • The risk of dying from infectious diseases for those who never attend religious services was 2.6 times higher than for those who attend religious services more than once per week.
These benefits persisted even when accounting for other possible factors such as "socioeconomic status, social integration, behavioral regulation, and health status."


helenaMT said…
I've been following your posts on the social value of Christianity for a while. I thought you might find this article interesting, if you haven't come across it yourself. It's written by an atheist, but makes a case for why Christain missionaries are so valuable in Africa.
helenaMT said…
Oops, I didn't realize I couldn't leave a working link. The article's title was "As an atheist, I truly believe Africa needs God", Matthew Parris,Dec 27, 2008 from the Times Online.
Layman said…

Thanks for commenting.

That article got some good play when it came out. I've been meaning to read it but since my posts have focused on the effects of Christianity in the United States I haven't done so yet.
David B. Ellis said…
I have a question about the methodology: did the studies control for functional status.

An article by Dr. Richard Sloan explains how this has skewed results of similar studies in the past. The relevent section of the article is quoted below:

For example, George Comstock, a senior and well-respected epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, published a paper in the Journal of Chronic Disease in 1972 which concluded that church attendance was associated with increased longevity and reduced mortality.....In 1977, Comstock published another paper, which essentially retracted his initial finding. He realized that the original research had failed to control for functional status--the degree to which people were already sick or disabled. Church attendance is influenced by one's capacity to go to church. If you're already sick or disabled, you're
less likely to be able to attend church and you're also more likely to die. Rather than church attendance having an impact on health, health has an impact on church attendance.
Layman said…
If you had read the post you would see that they controlled for the health. Believe it or not, some things have happened since 1977.

But you are only interested in the truth, right? You have NO interest at all in downplaying this kind of research.
David B. Ellis said…
I missed that at first. I'm still interested in the details of the methodology. For example, whether the figures posted were after or before being controlled for. And in precisely what way they were controlled for.

I don't doubt at all that regular church goers have a lower than average mortality rate. It seems only sensible for several reasons that the article you linked to stated (like encouraging healthy behaviors, social interaction---a known factor in health, and anxiety reduction). Not to mention the simple fact that people engaging in the most egregiously self-destructive behaviors, heavy drug users, prostitutes, etc aren't exactly known for their regular church attendance.
David B. Ellis said…
There were a few fairly surprising findings to me. Did you notice how regular churchgoers have higher obesity rates? Or that they have higher rates for strokes?

I wonder what would account for that. I would have expected lower mortality rates for pretty much all categories.
Layman said…

Good food, good friends, and good times.
Anonymous said…
Looking for a torturer? Go to church!"White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified — more than 6 in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only 4 in 10 of them did"
Layman said…
The analysis is based on a Pew Research Center survey of 742 American adults conducted April 14-21. It did not include analysis of groups other than white evangelicals, white non-Hispanic Catholics, white mainline Protestants, and the religiously unaffiliated, because the sample size was too small.The small sample size aside, I am not particularly surprised. White evangelical Protestants are more conservative than non white evangelical Protestants.

But as I've mentioned before, the church going public in the U.S. is much broader than "white evangelical Protestants." So you are -- as Ellis did -- cherry picking a religious subset, not Christianity in general.
Steven Carr said…
People who keep pets are happier than people who don't.

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