How religious practice is linked to healthy habits

Written by William C. Duncan

July 7, 2021

It is no secret that health care preoccupies many, probably most, Americans – not only because it feels good to be healthy, but because the costs of medical procedures can seem overwhelming. Insurance companies promote wellness, but the uninsured are particularly vulnerable: Recent data show that they are likely to be charged more for health care.

Both groups have a stake in adopting healthy practices that make expensive health care less necessary.

Sutherland recently noted the role of religious groups in the historical development of hospitals. Of course, most people would like to avoid the hospital, and thankfully religious practice can help there as well.

As noted recently, religious practice has positive implications for mental health, but it benefits physical health as well.

For instance, religious dietary laws. The Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality notes: “Religious or spiritual groups may discourage smoking and heavy drinking” and promote other practices, like vegetarian eating, that can have positive health effects.

Related to this, religious teachings can encourage people to do things that will have positive health effects. A recent survey showed most people believe that counsel from religious leaders would increase the likelihood that they and others would get vaccinated for COVID-19.

Religious practice can impact physical health by “increasing social support.” Interacting with caring people can have the effect of encouraging good health practices and decreasing harmful stress.

Whatever the mechanism through which religious practice influences physical health, there is ample evidence that it does.

The Handbook chapter noted above summarizes a number of studies and reports that:

  • There is “a large and ‘persuasive’ quantity of evidence that attendance at religious services was associated with lower mortality in large population samples.” This was true even when the studies controlled for established risk factors. In fact, one meta-analysis “found an average mortality reduction of about 25% associated with religious involvement (primarily religious attendance) across 42 independent samples.”
  • Another featured study “found that weekly attendance at religious services predicted an approximately 40% reduction in circulatory disease mortality, even after adjusting for demographics and prior health status.”
  • Similarly, other “studies also found a relatively strong and independent protective effect against respiratory disease mortality.”
  • Yet another “study found that both men and women who reported religion as more important in their lives were more likely to use a variety of preventive services, including flu shots, cholesterol screening, breast self-exams, mammograms, Pap smears, and prostate screening.”

Another careful examination of existing research found similar results:

  • Religion and spirituality “was significantly related to positive cardiovascular functions or outcomes or to lower levels of inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein and fibrinogen that place individuals at high risk for cardiovascular disease.”
  • “Of the 39 highest quality studies, 24 (62%) report lower [blood pressure] (including one at a trend level) among those who are more [religious/spiritual] or in response to [a religious/spiritual] intervention.”
  • “Of the 14 studies with the highest quality ratings, 10 (71%) reported significant positive associations or increased immune functions in response to a [religious/spiritual] intervention”
  • Another set of studies “reported positive relationships [on endocrine function] or positive effects and no studies reported negative associations or negative effects.”

Of course, religious participation does not guarantee good health, and poor health is not an indicator of a lack of piety – in fact, religious teachings are also important to many in helping to navigate health-related and other difficulties. There are, however, significant indications that religious practice helps people to live better lives and that, in turn, benefits society more generally.

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