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New research finds link between religion and health in the elderly

Yale Medicine Magazine, 1998 - Winter/Spring


For the elderly, religion may do more than ease the soul. In fact, attendance at religious services may actually improve physical health and psychological well-being. That according to two new reports, co-authored by Stanislav V. Kasl, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology in the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, and Ellen Idler, Ph.D., associate professor of sociology at Rutgers' Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research.

The reports reveal the findings of a 12-year study conducted by Yale public health faculty and funded by the National Institute on Aging (NIA). The study sampled 2,812 people age 65 and over from Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and other religious backgrounds in New Haven. Subjects were interviewed annually from 1982 to 1989 and again in 1994.

The two reports were published in the Nov. 15 issue of the Journal of Gerontology. The first report, Religion Among Disabled and Nondisabled Persons I: Cross-sectional Patterns in Health Practices, Social Activities and Well-being, explores the impact of participating in religious services on risky health behaviors, friendships and family ties, and depression.

The three major findings for elderly people who participated in religious services are:

Lower frequency of unhealthy behaviors: Subjects are healthier because they are more likely to engage in good health habits, such as exercise, and are less likely to have participated in risky behaviors, such as excessive smoking and heavy drinking, due in part to social and behavioral guidelines set forth and reinforced by the religious organizations.

Stronger support systems and social ties: Subjects reported more friendships, closer relationships with more family members, and participation in more leisure activities, such as visits to museums and sporting events. In addition, they were more likely to have celebrated the winter holidays with more than one group of people.

Improved emotional well-being: Subjects reported increased feelings of optimism and happiness and fewer symptoms of depression. The impact was the greatest for people experiencing functional disability due to chronic illness. Functional disability is defined as difficulty handling such daily activities as climbing stairs, using the toilet or carrying groceries.

The report is important because it measured many other kinds of resources in elderly people's lives, and found that attendance at religious services was consistently associated with most of these resources. "Attendance acted as a linchpin because it was associated with better overall health practices, more friends and relatives, more social activities and higher levels of well-being," notes Dr. Idler.

The second report, Religion Among Disabled and Nondisabled Persons II: Attendance at Religious Services as a Predictor of the Course of Disability, explores how religious involvement can influence changes in physical health over a 12-year period. These findings show that attendance at religious services was a good predictor of functional ability in later life by comparing a person's functional ability in 1982 to the changes that occurred during each follow-up year. "Over the long-term, people who had better health levels in 1982 and continued attending religious services were able to maintain higher levels of functioning and psychological health through 1988," says Dr. Idler, who received a Ph.D. degree in 1985 from Yale.

"Even after we took out the other variables such as friendship, leisure activities and social support, there was still evidence that attendance at religious services had a positive impact on health, particularly for those who experienced some level of disability at the beginning of the survey," she adds. Some of the subgroups studied, such as people who already had some disability, continued to experience the positive effects through 1994, but the overall numbers were lower due to a decline in the subject pool. "There were so many reasons for thinking that we should expect better health among people who are religiously involved, but until now it wasn't anything we were able to quantify," says Dr. Idler. "We also found that it wasn't a person's individual feelings of religiousness that made the difference, it was acting as part of the larger worship group that fostered positive health."

"This study is important because it has a large representative sample of community-living elderly, a longitudinal follow-up to study changes over time and rigorous statistical adjustments for the influence of many other variables so that the unique effect of religiousness can be better identified," adds Yale's Dr. Kasl.

The study was commissioned as part of the NIA-Established Populations for the Epidemiologic Study of the Elderly, which included separate studies conducted by Harvard University, Duke University and the University of Iowa.