A recent article published on Medscape Internal Medicine [i] reiterates research evidence showing that church attendance can affect well-being through social integration and support and that spiritual experiences that provide a sense of purpose and meaning may promote hope and positively influence depression and marriage satisfaction, reduce alcohol use and prevent drug abuse. Church affiliation may also be a safe haven to avoid stigmatization by society for certain conditions.
Although the evidence provided appears for the time as insufficient to effectively demonstrate a definitive link between better health, lower mortality and spirituality, nonetheless a tentative connection has been clearly established. In stress management, the presence or absence of hope for the future, the perception of available support (either human or preternatural), and the sense of belonging that goes with spirituality are accepted protective factors that can significantly reduce the chronicity and ill effects of stress. What does the research of the last ten years show?
The association of spirituality and longevity was first documented in the late 1990s, when death rates were observed to be lower among people who attended church services [ii]. A 2002 research conducted among 6545 residents of Alameda County, California, showed that people who attended church infrequently had significantly higher rates of death from cardiovascular diseases, gastrointestinal diseases, and respiratory conditions. The researchers proposed that religious participation, like socioeconomic status, was a protective factor that promoted health through a variety of pathways [iii]. In a 2009 study of older adults, a statistically significant relationship was found between religious well-being, existential well-being and psychological well-being, as well as with healthier behaviors [iv]. An earlier study (2005) had also linked church attendance among older adults with the practice of healthier behaviors, perhaps through a socialization mechanism [v]. Additionally, a 2002 research study of advanced cancer patients observed that survival rates were higher among those who exhibited higher religiosity or spirituality [vi].
How Does Spirituality Improve Health?
One theory posits that reduced cardiovascular risk, possibly related to lifestyle or other cardioprotective effects of religious behavior, improves mortality rates among healthy, religious persons. Another possibility is that abiding by certain religious beliefs can positively influence high risk factors, such as drinking and smoking. Studies have confirmed lower rates of smoking among those with high religiosity or spirituality [vii].
For further reading:
[i] Lie, D. (2010) Is Religiosity or Spirituality Protective For Heart Disease? Medscape Family Medicine, April 26, 2010.
[ii] Strawbridge WJ, Cohen R, Sherma S, Kaplan G. Frequent attendance at religious services and mortality over 28 years. Am J Public Health. 1997;87:957-961.
[iii] Oman D, Kurata JH, Strawbridge WJ, Cohen RD. Religious attendance and cause of death over 31 years. Int J Psychiatry Med. 2002;32:69-89.
[iv] Lawler-Row KA, Elliott J. The role of religious activity and spirituality in the health and well-being of older adults. J Health Psychol 2009;14:43-52.
[v] Benjamins MR. Religion and preventive health care use in older adults [Abstract]. Dissertation Abstracts International, A: The Humanities and Social Sciences. 2005;65:3171A.
[vi] Breitbart W. Spirituality and meaning in supportive care: spirituality- and meaning-centered group psychotherapy interventions in advanced cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2002;10:272-280.
[vii] Roff LL, Klemmack D, Parker M, Koenig H, Sawyer-Baker P, Allman R. Religiosity, smoking, exercise, and obesity among Southern, community-dwelling older adults. J Appl Gerontol. 2005;24:337-354.