Churchgoing Correlated with Better Health

A new study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) may help senior citizens divine the importance of attending church to their physical health.

The soon-to-be released report cites a correlation between church service attendance and improved lung health in subjects aged 70 to 79. The findings will be published in the upcoming issue of “Annals of Behavioral Medicine.”

Researchers sorted the seniors into three broad categories based on the frequency of their church attendance. The subjects were also monitored for lung health based on their performance in a series of breathing tests over a period of approximately five years.

The study used the peak expiratory flow rate—the amount of air a person exhales in one minute—as the benchmark for assessing lung health. This rate normally declines with age, though the study shows that avid churchgoers experience about half the rate of decline as those who did not attend church.

Lead author of the paper Joanna M. Maselko, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Epidemiology at HSPH, said lung health was chosen as the dependent variable in the study to represent overall health because researchers had access to data on this measure.

According to Maselko, the link between churchgoing and health cannot be labeled a causal effect despite the strong correlation between the two variables. The scope of the study is limited, she added, because it only examines the effects of Christian religious services.

Maselko is currently working on another study examining similar factors in Hindu India in an effort to generalize the study’s findings to other communities.

Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, criticized the study for its interpretation of the data collected.

Sloan, author of the book, “Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine,” said there was “probably some other factor” that caused the correlation because subjects did not differ in lung function when they entered the study.

Amanda L. Shapiro ’08, president of the Harvard Secular Society, said she worries that the study may be interpreted as “proof of a higher power, or, more specifically, proof of God’s work through participation in organized religion.”

Maselko wrote in an e-mail, however, that researchers intend for people to conclude that those who are “involved with religious communities have access to specific social, psychological and maybe spiritual resources that translate into improved health outcomes.”

Brian S. Gillis ’07-’08, a member of Christian Impact, also said the study should not necessarily be taken as a suggestion of the supremacy of Christianity. He stated that the results can be explained in part by church being an “anchor” in many people’s lives, which may lead to increased optimism and hope in their perspective and thus improve their health.

Anna E. Reinert ’08, treasurer of the Secular Society, said the study can be interpreted favorably by either side of the religious spectrum, but interpretation “can be dangerous, as all cognitive neuroscience types of studies can be.”