The number of Americans who attend religious services at least once a week jumped nearly three points to 27.5 percent during the two years ended in 2004, according to statistics to be released this week by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
This leap could be good news for the nation's health. A growing body of scientific evidence shows that Americans who attend religious services at least once a week enjoy better-than-average health and lower rates of illness, including depression. Perhaps most important, the studies show that weekly attendance confers a significant reduction in mortality risk over a given period of time.
These studies have received almost no attention, in part because there is skepticism among many medical scientists about the validity of these studies, as Lynda Powell can attest. A professor of preventive medicine at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center, Dr. Powell was a nonchurch-goer who was very suspicious of such studies. Then in 2001, the National Institutes of Health asked her to lead a three-scientist panel that would review the mounting pile of medical literature purporting to link religion to health.
The panel found scant evidence of the benefit of religion on illness, and found that patients who used religion to cope fared slightly worse than those who didn't. "Religious people who become upset by the belief that God has abandoned them or who become dependent on their faith, rather than their medical treatment, for recovery may inadvertently subvert the success of their recovery," concluded the panel's report, which was published in the January 2003 journal American Psychologist.
But the panel's examination of studies showing the effect of church attendance on health reached an altogether different conclusion. As Dr. Powell, who is continuing to research this issue, puts it: "After seeing the data, I think I should go to church."
The panel reported that the studies showed a 25 percent lower mortality rate for those who attend religious services at least weekly. Each study covered a different period of time. But generally speaking, that means that during any period in which there were 100 deaths among those who don't attend weekly, only 75 weekly attendees would die, even though both groups on paper seemed at equal risk for death, Dr. Powell says.
Religious services at churches, temples and mosques boast various features that can be beneficial to health - meditation, a social network, a set of values that discourage smoking, infidelity and other unhealthy behaviors. Many of the studies have found that the health benefits of weekly attendance accrue more heavily to women than to men, perhaps because women make greater use of religious social networks.
Of course, people who attend weekly religious services are by definition well enough to get out of the house regularly, suggesting that they may enjoy an inherent health advantage. Indeed, studies show no health advantage for people who watch religious services on television.
But it isn't simply that people showing up for church are healthier; they also are more likely to improve their health habits. When compared with nonweekly attendance, "weekly attendance was associated with a statistically significant improvement in quitting smoking, becoming often physically active, becoming not depressed, increasing the number of individual personal relationships and getting married," said one of the examined articles, which was published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine in 2001. That study gathered health and mortality data over a period of 30 years on 2,676 Californians, 26 percent of whom attended religious services weekly.
Not everyone is convinced that religious services account for the more robust health and survival documented in these articles. The same health benefits could be derived from belonging to a bingo club or socializing at the local library, says Emilia Bagiella, a Columbia University assistant professor of biostatistics. Also, she says, "it's hard to correct for the fact that people who go to church may have a better health status" before they arrive.
But the studies supporting a link between religious-service attendance and health come from such secular institutions as the universities of Texas, Michigan and California at San Francisco. And their authors don't necessarily go to church or perceive the mortality benefits of doing so as the handiwork of God. "Being religiously involved can confer certain health benefits, and I don't think there's any divine intervention involved," says Robert A. Hummer, a nonchurch-going University of Texas sociology professor whose studies have shown a health benefit for regular religious-service attendance.
Moreover, Dr. Powell says that she and her colleagues excluded from their review any study that failed to control for the social benefits of church attendance as well as the healthier habits of those who go regularly. Even after excluding those factors, they found a significant health and mortality benefit from regular attendance. "There's an unknown mechanism" contributing to the benefit, she says, adding that she doesn't believe that that mechanism is God.
Dr. Powell says that a continuing study of hers is suggesting that that mechanism might be the practice, encouraged in nearly all religions, of turning to prayer or meditation in moments of anger and distress, thereby diminishing the harmful effects of negative emotion. She tells of a Sikh cab driver who told her that any time another driver cuts him off, he reaches for his prayer beads. In doing so, he told her, "I feel closer to God."