If you belong to an organized religion, you probably know some people who attend church twice a year—Christmas and Easter. Of course, you know about the men who attend church regularly, or almost so, just to avoid a day-long argument. You might be one of them. What’s all the hoopla about going to church, anyway? This is not about religion, spiritual beliefs, or faith, but about your health.
Religiosity is not the same thing as spirituality. Religiosity implies the embodiment of certain aspects of religious activity to an exaggerated state of involvement, zeal that stretches the norms of a person’s faith or beliefs. Religiosity can be fake, an external display of unwarranted righteousness that is not truly characteristic of a follower of the truth. Religion is the way we practice our beliefs, and is a source of enlightenment, discipline, encouragement, and service to self and to others. It’s the challenge to become more like the One we choose to follow.
The social aspect of religion cannot be ignored. Sociable people say that their lives are satisfying, and that they even expect to outlive their less convivial colleagues. Sharing exuberant fun buoys the body, mind and spirit, the last of these including one’s communication with his Creator. Isolated individuals are more likely to get sick than those who have a social network. The connected folks perform better under stress, and often have lower cholesterol, better glucose control, and enhanced self-esteem. Friendships can strengthen the immune system (Capitanioa. 2010) and contribute to good physical and mental health. (Graham. 2007) Establishing friendships, which are portable, might be a legitimate reason to attend a church.
Belief in God can comfort patients who face terminal illness because they believe they will be in His presence after death. Such has also been shown to improve quality of life for those with disabilities or chronic, painful medical conditions. But could there be a bit of science to believing? Consider a study that says, “Spirituality generally relates to better mental health, greater well-being, and higher quality of life.” (Koenig. 2004) Support from the faith community can help people better cope with health stressors. Naturally, one would expect it to enhance compliance with medical treatment, as well.
A recent Norwegian study wondered if belief in God conferred any health benefits. Using a longitudinal approach with more than 35,000 subjects, researchers found their answer. The more often people went to church, the lower their blood pressure, even when the study was controlled for other possible explanations. (Sørensen. 2011) Previous research in the United States had shown the same link. A difference between the Norwegian and American populations is that more than ninety percent of Norwegians belong to the state church, which is confessedly Lutheran and part of the Porvoo Communion, a harmonious group that includes northern European Lutherans and Anglicans. Americans show a wider distribution in their religious preferences. Whether or not there is a direct translation between the Norwegians and the Americans is yet to be established. But it has been accepted that the salutary effect of religion on blood pressure can at least be partially explained by religion’s promotion of healthful behaviors, the psychosocial aspects, and above all, faith. (Levin. 1989)
In an earlier study, investigators from Duke University examined the association of religious activity and blood pressure in older adults living in a community setting, finding also that the religiously active tended to have lower blood pressures than their less active peers. This relationship applied to actual attendance at services and to personal prayer time, but not to watching services on television or listening on the radio. (Koenig. 1998) It’s common knowledge that blood pressure is related to cardiovascular health, the assessment of which is also gauged by certain markers, namely C-reactive protein, fibrinogen, and white cell count. These three markers were found to be elevated in those who didn’t go to church, even after adjusting for demographic variables, health status, and body mass index. The only deviant factor was smoking. (King. 2001)
You might expect church goers to be a forgiving lot, but that’s something easier to talk about than to do. Those who are able to forgive are happier and healthier. (vanOyen 2001) Their blood pressures and heart rates rarely stray from normal. Regardless of beliefs, almost all religions include forgiveness among the behaviors they preach. Not surprisingly, the neurotic, the perpetually angry, and the hostile are less likely to forgive, even after considerable time has passed.
Religion and church attendance are matters that the medical community is advised to consider when treating the whole person, especially the geriatric populace. Religiousness for the patients is related to fewer depressive symptoms, better quality of life, less perceived pain, and lower incidence of cognitive impairment. It’s not uncommon for the medical professional to find benefits for himself after counseling the ill. (Lucchetti. 2011)
We might as well have a sense of humor about going to church, a place that needn’t be filled with fun-busters. It’s a place to let your guard down, where you can find a hunting or fishing buddy, or someone who shares a hobby (almost wrote hubby), or even a mate. Besides, a sense of humor can help you to live longer. (Svebak. 2010) See you in church?
Anna C. Buck, David R. Williams, Marc A. Musick, , Michelle J. Sternthal An examination of the relationship between multiple dimensions of religiosity, bloodpressure, and hypertension Social Science & Medicine. 68(2); Jan 2009: 314-322
J.P. Capitanioa, J. Jianga Psychosocial Influences on Immunity Encyclopedia of Behavioral Neuroscience. . 2010: Pages 132-137
Koenraad Cuypers, Steinar Krokstad, Turid Lingaas Holmen, Margunn Skjei Knudtsen, Lars Olov Bygren Patterns of receptive and creative cultural activities and their association with perceived health, anxiety, depression and satisfaction with life among adults: the HUNT study, Norway Journal of Epidemiology and Community Healthjech. 2011, May 23
Jennifer E. Graham, Lisa M. Christian, Janice K. Kiecolt-glaser Chapter 36 - Close Relationships and Immunity Psychoneuroimmunology (Fourth Edition) 2007, Pages 781-798
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Harold G. Koenig, Harvey Jay Cohen, Linda K. George, Judith C. Hays, David B. Larson, Dan G. Blazer Attendance at Religious Services, Interleukin-6, and Other Biological Parameters of Immune Function in Older Adults The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. Vol 27, Num 3 / 1997: 233 - 250
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Lucchetti G, Lucchetti AG, Badan-Neto AM, Peres PT, Peres MF, Moreira-Almeida A, Gomes C, Koenig HG. Religiousness affects mental health, pain and quality of life in older people in an outpatient rehabilitation setting. J Rehabil Med. 2011 Mar;43(4):316-22.
Torgeir Sørensen, Lars J. Danbolt, Lars Lien, Harold G. Koenig, Jostein Holmen The Relationship between Religious Attendance and Blood Pressure: The Hunt Study, Norway The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. 42(1); 2011: 13-28
Sven Svebak, Solfrid Romundstad, Jostein Holmen A 7-Year Prospective Study of Sense of Humor and Mortality in an Adult County Population: The Hunt-2 Study The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. 40(2), 2010: 125-146
vanOyen Witvliet C, Ludwig TE, Vander Laan KL. Granting forgiveness or harboring grudges: implications for emotion, physiology, and health. Psychol Sci. 2001 Mar;12(2):117-23.
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