Religion and Health: Is There a Link?

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Beyond that, as other research has found, leaving a church, especially one with high standards, may alienate family members and friends, leaving the person isolated and without the social support enjoyed for all those years.

Leaving Church Could Weaken Social Ties

"You could lose your friends or your family becomes upset when you leave, leading to psychological stress and negative health outcomes," says Scheitle, lead author of the study.

Other researchers have found physiological links between religion and health. For example, Duke University scientists found that regular church attendance and religious studies can actually lower blood pressure, especially among the elderly.

Scientists at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center found that attending church regularly is likely to extend a person's lifespan as much as engaging in regular physical exercise and taking a statin to lower cholesterol.

Furthermore, just simply living in a community with a religious environment improves mortality rates, according to research by scientists at Louisiana State University, the University of Texas and others.

Some Scientists Find Link Between Religion and Health Troubling

They suggest it's because the community is more likely to take care of its members and provide a social structure that is supportive, thus encouraging healthy behavior. In this scenario, one benefits by the proximity of a church, even if one never attends.

So there's no shortage of data indicating that religion may be beneficial to a person's health. But many questions remain that are much harder to answer. Does it matter how sincerely the person believes in the church's teachings?

Religion may be therapeutic, but so can a placebo. So what's really at work here, a person's true beliefs, the validity of those beliefs or simply belonging to a group that is supportive of a healthy lifestyle and provides a social network that can ease a frequently difficult journey through life?

Those questions may be beyond the reach of science, and some scientists have found the links between religion and health troubling. Researchers at Columbia University looked at hundreds of studies a few years ago linking religion to good health and found them wanting.

Too many were based on too small of a sample, although that's not the case in this latest study, and many studies ignored the fact that it may simply be a healthier lifestyle, not religious faith, that leads to longer and healthier lives.

The Columbia scientists offered this advice to the medical profession: stick to medicine, not religion.

Scheitle and Adamczyk don't attempt to answer all those questions, of course. At this point they are content with findings that indicate dropping out of a church may indeed have "high costs," including the loss of friends, alienation of family, and poorer health.

It would be interesting to know the price that non-believers pay if they stay in a church and no longer believe its teachings.

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