Regular church attendance lowers chances of 'deaths from despair': Harvard study

Unsplash/Kenny Luo
Unsplash/Kenny Luo

A study of the well-being of healthcare workers in the United States found that those who regularly attend worship services are at a lower risk of deaths related to alcohol, drugs, or suicide, collectively known as “deaths from despair.”

Researchers with the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University had a study published last week in the journal JAMA Psychiatry titled “Religious Service Attendance and Deaths Related to Drugs, Alcohol, and Suicide Among US Health Care Professionals.

The research drew from a sample of 66,492 female registered nurses via the Nurses’ Health Study II of 2001-2017 and 43,141 male healthcare professionals drawn from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study from 1988-2014.

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According to the researchers, women who attended religious services at least once per week had a 68% lower hazard of death from despair compared to peers who did not, while men who attended worship at least once a week had a 33% lower hazard compared to men who never attended.

“… this study suggests that religious service attendance was associated with lower risk of deaths from despair among both men and women, accounting for a wide range of potential confounders (including other aspects of social integration),” stated the Discussion section of the study.

“Findings of this study were congruent with previous evidence suggesting that religious service attendance was inversely associated with all-cause mortality and various factors associated with despair … positively associated with psychosocial well-being outcomes, such as greater purpose in life … and often more strongly associated with subsequent health compared with other aspects of social integration.”

In noting its limitations, the researchers cautioned that their study examined a section of the country with higher than average educational background and that other religious practices were not considered.

“The convergence of shared beliefs and enhanced social connection may be associated with health benefits,” the researchers added.

“However, other aspects of religious involvement also merit investigation, especially for religious traditions that do not convene congregational meetings on a regular basis.”

They also noted that for religiously unaffiliated individuals, “other avenues of social integration may likewise be pursued.”

“Although the magnitude of health associations may not be as substantial, other forms of social integration are also associated with health and well-being,” they added.

Ying Chen of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science and lead author of the study, told The Harvard Gazette that the results were “especially striking amidst the present COVID-19 pandemic.”

“They are striking in part because clinicians are facing such extreme work demands and difficult conditions, and in part because many religious services have been suspended. We need to think what might be done to extend help to those at risk for despair,” said Chen.

Over the past several years, several studies have been published indicating mental and physical health benefits for individuals who regularly attend worship services.

In 2018, researchers with the University of Texas at San Antonio found that people who attend religious services and pray often typically sleep better than their less religious peers.

“More religious adults in particular tend to exhibit healthier sleep outcomes than their less religious counterparts,” explained the Abstract of the study, which was published by Sleep Health: Journal of the National Sleep Foundation.

“This general pattern can be seen across large population-based studies using a narrow range of religion measurements and sleep outcomes.” 

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