10 fascinating findings on the relationship between religion & health
Religious or not, you’ve probably wondered about how a belief in God, or a lack of belief in God, affects one’s health. Research suggests links do exist between one’s spirituality and both physical and mental well-being, and some of the findings might surprise you.
1. Jews and Mormons are the healthiest.
An enormous Gallup poll of more than 676,000 Americans found that Jews and Mormons scored the highest on overall well-being, with scores based on participants’ health ratings in such categories as overall quality of life, emotional health, physical health, healthy behavior habits, job satisfaction, and access to doctors and other health resources.
Based on scores of the “very religious,” religious groups ranked from highest to lowest in overall well-being in the following order: Jewish, Mormon/Latter-Day Saints, Muslim/Islam, Roman Catholic, another non-Christian religion, Protestant/another non-Catholic Christian religion and none/atheist/agnostic.
If you’re thinking that socioeconomic status might have played a role here, think again. The researchers actually controlled for such factors as age, gender, race and ethnicity, region and state of the country, socioeconomic status, marital status and childbearing status. People who considered themselves to be “very religious” scored the highest within each religious group, and nonreligious people scored higher in physical health than Protestant/other non-Catholic Christians and Roman Catholics.
2. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t change one’s religious belief.
Among life-changing events that could shake someone’s faith, a cancer diagnosis has to be up there, right? Surprisingly, no. An October 2012 study found that this devastating news won’t cause religious people to stop believing, and it won’t make nonreligious people rethink their beliefs either.
The study, based on interviews with 21 young cancer patients shortly after the diagnosis and during cancer treatment, found that the news can actually strengthen their current feelings about religion.
“The cancer patients do contemplate existential issues, but that does not mean that they suddenly start praying or going to church if these religious practices were not already part of their lives,” said Nadja Ausker, a sociologist of religion from the University of Copenhagen, on ScienceDaily.com. “Several patients said it would be hypocritical of them to change practice and faith because of the diagnosis.”
3. Religious thoughts reduce stress in believers, increase it in nonbelievers.
A study published in the August 2010 issue of Psychological Science used brain waves to detect distress in respondents and investigate whether or not that emotion was affected by religious thinking. Some participants were prepped with an activity that put God-related thoughts in their head, and some weren’t.
Both groups took a test known to produce a high rate of incorrect answers, and the brain scans showed that, among those who believed in God, those who had been given the religious-thought exercise had less distress in a particular area of the brain. Among atheists, however, those prepped with religious thoughts showed an increase of activity in that area of the brain. Researchers hypothesized that they experienced more distress because the God-related thoughts conflicted with their beliefs.
4. Belief in a concerned God aids depression treatment.
Believing in a caring God can have a positive effect on depression treatment, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology in 2010. Of 136 adults diagnosed with major depression or bipolar disorder, those with strong beliefs in a compassionate God were more likely to improve when put on antidepressants. And it turns out this had nothing to do with their feeling of hopefulness, since researchers factored this into the study and found it wasn’t associated with the treatment’s success.
5. Religion aids rehabilitation in traumatic brain injury victims.
A 2011 study published in Rehabilitation Psychology recorded the levels of religious well-being (believing in a higher power), the levels of existential well-being (believing that life has a purpose unrelated to religion) and the amount of involvement in public religious activities of 88 patients with a traumatic brain injury.
Those with high levels of religious well-being showed more emotional and physical improvements from rehabilitation, even when researchers controlled for social support. Public religious activities and existential well-being, on the other hand, didn’t significantly impact the rehabilitation outcome.
6. Religion, in general, is correlated with better mental health.
No matter what your faith, religion could offer some mental health benefits. A 2012 University of Missouri study published in the Journal of Religion and Health analyzed the relationship between participants’ mental and physical health, personality factors and their religion.
No matter what the participants’ religion — Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic or Protestant — spirituality was positively correlated with better mental health, specifically lower levels of neuroticism and greater extraversion.
7. Changing religious groups can take a toll on health.
If you’re part of a “high-cost” religious group — meaning one with very rigid beliefs and practices, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or Latter-day Saints — it might be better for your health if you remain a member.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that religious individuals who were raised and remain in one of these types of groups were more likely to report excellent health (40%) than those who were raised in such a group but switch to a different one (25%). This percentage drops to 20% for those who were raised in a high-cost religious group but end up assuming an unaffiliated status.
Additionally, people who leave these high-cost religious groups were more likely to report worse health than those who leave other religious groups.
8. Most physicians believe that religion plays a role in patients’ health.
You might think that doctors would be religious skeptics, like many scientists, because their whole career revolves around science, which can sometimes conflict with spiritual beliefs. Surprisingly, though, 54% believe that a supernatural being may intervene at times, according to a study published in an April 2007 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine. Researchers also found that 56% of those doctors believe religion and spirituality significantly influence health, which could be attributed in part because of a belief in religion’s psychological benefits.
Despite these findings, only 6% reported believing that religion and spirituality could actually change medical outcomes.
9. Level of religious well-being is correlated with depression risk.
Here’s a confusing yet interesting study: Temple University researchers looked at the levels of religious well-being, existential well-being and religious service attendance among 918 individuals, and found that religious service attendance was associated with a 30% lower probability of having depression in one’s lifetime. OK, that’s not too confusing — attending religious services could offer social support that’s beneficial to one’s mental health.
But here’s where it gets surprising: Despite the findings discussed in No. 6, the participants of this study who had high levels of religious well-being were 1.5 times more likely to have depression than those with low levels.
And while high levels of religious well-being meant a higher risk of depression, the study found the opposite among those with high levels of existential well-being — they were 70% less likely to have depression than those with low levels of existential well-being.
10. Religion can be a great security blanket.
When religious individuals are scared or stressed, they often turn to prayer. A 2006 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that this type of reaction at the very least offers psychological benefits. Church attendance and individual prayer were found to lower blood pressure, which tends to rise in high-stress scenarios. Thus, it appears these religious practices serve as an effective coping mechanism for believers.