The God Vitamin?
Fri, 01/30/2009
Staff Writer

In an era when religion and science seem divided by a gaping chasm, one group of scientists is showing how these two belief systems may be a little closer than we think.

A team of scientists led by Eliezer Schnall, an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Yeshiva University, recently determined that women who attend religious services regularly may in fact live longer than those who do not. In the study’s sample pool, the women who habitually attended services were 20 percent less likely to die during the period studied than those who had not attended. 

“This is one of the largest studies of women that’s been done — it’s a large sample and women were carefully followed up over time,” said Harold Koenig, an associate professor of psychiatry and medicine and director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University. “It looked like those who attended religious services more frequently had a longer life.”

Doctors across the country — even the co-author on Schnall’s own research team, Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller, professor of epidemiology and population health at Albert Einstein College of Medicine — are shocked by the results.

“I just didn’t think there was a rationale for it,” Smoller said. “Now I can imagine a number of biological connections.”

Schnall and his team took their data from a study already completed by the Women’s Health Initiative, which looked at American females between the ages of 50 and 79 and assessed whether or not postmenopausal women would benefit from hormone therapy. The Women’s Health Initiative had recruited participants through mass mailings, voter registrations, driver’s license compilations and other lists, according to the study. Following initial enrollment screenings, women were placed into a placebo-controlled, double-blind randomized clinical trial, in which they received hormone replacement treatments, dietary modification instructions or placebo substitutes. Another set of women was assigned to the observational study, where doctors simply observed the impacts of various genetic, biological and health factors upon the women’s lives — without any modification. Schnall and his team only used the data generated by the 92,395 observational study participants; inclusion of the hormone therapy set would have added another confounding variable to the sample population of women, he said.

Doctors tracked both sets of women for eight years and periodically asked the participants to fill out extensive personal surveys asking about such things as geographic location, dietary fiber intake, ethnicity, education level and a multitude of other topics. But the survey also included questions about religion: strength and comfort provided by religion, religious affiliation and frequency of service attendance. Such queries involving religion are typical of health surveys, according to Schnall.

“Religiosity type information is seen as important to bio-psychosocial understanding of people and their health, so other studies in the past have suggested that religion has an impact on health,” he said.

Researchers in 40 clinical centers across the country monitored the participants’ progress during the years, and at the conclusion of the study, they counted how many participants were still alive, had died from any cause or had died from heart disease. From these figures, Schnall and his team draw their data for their ancillary study. They adjusted the models to control for varying demographics, socioeconomics and prior health conditions that might have had an impact on the results — yet still found that the service attendees were 20 percent less likely to have died than those who did not attend services, Schnall said.

Researchers must be careful how they extrapolate the data to the rest of the population because this simple included only older women, Smoller cautioned.

“Nevertheless, certainly in that group — and we had a huge sample of nearly 100,000 women — this was an important factor,” she said.

But doctors and spiritual leaders can only speculate as to the reasons why religious attendance could lengthen a person’s life.

“We were unable to completely account for the findings based on known factors,” Schnall said. “Our research does suggest that psycho-social factors and behavioral type factors play a role. However, they do not entirely account for the reduced risk of death.”

Schnall surmised that the healthier lifestyle could come from the influence of priests, rabbis and other spiritual leaders who rail against the dangers of drugs and alcohol and encourage respect for one’s body.

“Attending religious services is a reflection of the depth of a person’s religious commitment,” Koenig agreed. “It’s reflecting a devotion to a certain belief system and that belief system promotes health. It advocates a healthy lifestyle.”

Smoller added that attending services could be a stress-reducing, meditative experience and therefore a positive reinforcement for the body.

But why not simply take a meditation class or a group tennis lesson then?

The answer is still a mystery to doctors, but Smoller contends that there is something different about regular religious attendance in a place of worship, which reinforces health in a way that mere exercise cannot. In the current study, even when the team decided to control for health behaviors, the results still persisted, Smoller noted.

Agreeing with Smoller, Koenig pointed to a 1996 study of lifespan differences among residents of religious and secular kibbutzim, which found that the religious residents tended to live longer than their secular counterparts. “The religious person believes there’s something beyond death — it helps people to cope with death,” he said.

Aside from potentially practicing more disciplined health routines, service attendees also find themselves with an automatic community of friends, and the constant interaction with other people can make for a happier lifestyle, the doctors explained.

Researchers saw no calculable differences in mortality rates among different religions. Most of the participants – 79.2 percent — were Christian, and 7.7 percent were Jewish, a significantly higher percent than America’s overall Jewish population.

“Virtually everybody had some religious affiliation,” Smoller said. “Virtually something like 88 percent said that they get some strength and comfort from religion”

In a future paper on this topic, Smoller hopes to use the same data to tease out psychological characteristics and measures of clinical depression among those who attend services regularly and those who do not. But for the moment, scientists are pleased with Schnall’s findings and hope only to investigate the issues further.

“It’s garnered an incredible amount of interest worldwide,” Smoller said. “I think it does show that there’s some yearning for spiritual aspects of life among people.”