For decades, researchers have suggested that religious involvement improves health. In particular, many studies have explored the association between attending religious services and mortality. For example, a 2004 study with a national sample followed individuals for over seven years and found that those who attended at least one religious service per month had a 30-35% reduced risk of death. A study from 2016 similarly found that attending more than one religious service per week resulted in a 33% decrease in all-cause mortality.
But is attending services a marker for some other “healthy” and protective factors? For example, participants from the 2016 study were all nurses and highly educated, suggesting that the impact on mortality may be due in part to their education status and health knowledge rather than religious service attendance alone.
In a recent study, researchers tried to control for a wider assortment of factors that might explain or even dampen this religion effect. They looked at a population seldom studied—individuals from urban and rural areas in the Southern US. Data for 82,510 individuals were obtained from the Southern Community Cohort Study (SCCS), a study which collects information from 10 of the 12 states with the highest self-reported religious service attendance. The vast majority of participants were African-American or Non-Hispanic White, low-income, and had not attended college.
The lower religious effect might be explained by the lower socioeconomic status and education of its population sample.
Participants were followed for just over 10 years. The authors reported that attending at least one religious service per week was again significantly associated with lower overall mortality (-8%) and cancer mortality (-15%), but to a lesser extent than previous studies. This weaker association may have been attenuated by factors outside of one’s faith that previous studies were unable to collect data for, including socioeconomic status, lifestyle choices, and psychosocial factors. The lower religious effect might be explained by the lower socioeconomic status and education of its population sample.
The authors also looked at the effect of self-reported spirituality and personal importance of religion and found that neither of these variables were associated with lower overall or cancer mortality.
Among underserved populations in these Southern states, these results suggest that any potential positive effect of attending religious services on overall mortality may be undermined by deprivation and poverty.