Alfred P. Doolittle may have been on to something when, in the midst of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” he beseeches, “For God’s sake, get me to the church on time!” It’s a healthful place to be.
That, anyway, is the takeaway from David DeSteno’s June 8 article in The Wall Street Journal, “Is religion good for your health?” Professor of psychology at Boston’s Northeastern University, and host of the podcast, “How God works: the science behind spirituality,” he tells how research shows “a strong link between religion and better physical and mental health.”
True, DeSteno inserts the usual disclaimers and qualifiers: “[S]tudies that demonstrate a link between [church] services and better health are subject to important doubts”; and, “[H]ealth benefits that appear to come from being religiously active might actually have a different source”; and, “[R]eligion is only one of many factors that affect health.”
Be that as it may, research also shows “that a majority of Americans, including [even] a majority of family physicians, believe that religion can heal,” and so it is that “77% of hospitalized patients ask physicians to consider their spiritual needs.”
But it’s this one study to which DeSteno devotes particular attention: published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2016, and using data from over 70,000 women who were part of a 1992-to-2012 study of the health of nurses, it “found that those who attended religious services at least once a week had 33% lower mortality, from any cause, over a 16-year period. In particular, deaths due to cancer or cardiovascular disease were 75% the rate of non-attenders.” Even the risk of suicide was lower: “Among the nurses attending services at least once a week, or more, cut the suicide rate by 80%.”
Led by Harvard epidemiologist Tyler VanderWeele, this study, coupled with data from other large-scale surveys, “found that religiosity improves mental health.” Weekly church attendance, or meditating regularly—this, too—“reduces feelings of depression, and increases feelings of life satisfaction and purpose, even among adolescents.”
DeSteno concludes, “Reciting prayers, chanting mantras, and engaging in deep contemplation, affect worshippers in multiple ways. These practices slow breathing, and brighten emotional states, with a direct positive impact on the cardiovascular system. They alter thought processes, imbuing situations that might seem hopeless with a sense of optimism, which is also linked to improve health.”