Friday, November 28, 2008

Albert Einstein College of Medicine: Religious practice prolongs life, unexplained factor cited

According to this Eurekalert press release:

November 19, 2008 -(BRONX, NY) - A study published by researchers at Yeshiva University and its medical school, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, strongly 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. The research was conducted by Eliezer Schnall, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva College of Yeshiva University, and co-authored by Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and population health at Einstein, as an ancillary 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.

The researchers evaluated the religious practices of 92,395 post-menopausal women participating in the WHI. 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 mortality. Although the study showed as much as a 20 percent decrease in the overall risk of mortality for those attending religious services, it did not show any consistent change in rates of morbidity and death specifically related to cardiovascular disease, with no explanation readily evident.

The study adjusted 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.

"Interestingly, the protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained by expected factors that include enhanced social support of friends or family, lifestyle choices and reduced smoking and alcohol consumption," said Dr. Schnall, who was lead author of the study. "There is something here that we don't quite understand. It is always possible that some unknown or unmeasured factors confounded these results," he added.
Here's the study, published in Psychology and Health, the official journal of the European Health Psychology Society.

As Mario and I discussed in The Spiritual Brain, for a long time, the links were unexplored, due to a tendency among researchers to doubt their existence. Starting in the early 1970s, that assumption was challenged by a growing body of research that shows that an active spiritual life really does improve physical health. Today, that is an uncontroversial view among health researchers (though not, perhaps, popular with certain best-selling atheist writers … ).

Obviously, a complex of factors must be cited in a study that involved nearly 100 000 women, whether or not they "exceeded expectations." How about:

- cultural respect for older people, which is normal in religious groups

- specific teachings that promote a healthy lifestyle

- practical help with daily living (for example, religious-sponsored retirement homes, including volunteers who help with daily activities)

- the good mental health effects of prayer, meditation, and volunteering

- the reduced fear of death (which, ironically, may contribute to longer life by preventing dangerous panic episodes)

- a sense of continuity ("After I die, others will continue the jobs I know are important.")

Now what about that “unexplained” factor?

Was it faith? Was it hope? Studies capture what they can capture. We needn’t be concerned that a researcher can’t point to faith or hope on a lab slide. What we can point to is the favourable effect of spirituality on our bodily health, even if not all the factors are easily separable from each other.

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