Going to church may be as good for the body as it is for the soul, especially for the elderly, researchers are discovering.
Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc, and colleagues at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, NC, report in the October issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine that their study of more than 1,700 older adults in North Carolina revealed an association between religious observance and enhanced immune function that was consistent across multiple analyses.
The researchers report that 60 percent of elderly persons attend religious services at least once a week, despite increasing health problems, and earlier studies suggest that those who do attend church frequently are in better physical health than those who do not. What has been unclear is whether only the most healthy can get to church regularly or whether frequent church attendance prevents their health from declining or at least slows the decline.
In the first study to examine the relationship between religious attendance and the immune system, the Duke University researchers have followed since 1986 the religious behavior of a randomly selected group called the Establishment of Populations for Epidemiologic Studies of the Elderly (EPESE). They interviewed 1,727 participants at home and tested their blood for nine substances that indicate activity of the immune system and inflammatory response.
The investigators found that those who attended religious services frequently were only half as likely to have elevated levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), which acts on a wide variety of cells, regulates the immune response and is involved in a variety of diseases, injuries and infections.
They said the relationship was not related to depression or negative life events and that similar associations were found for four of eight other substances tested to assess the immune system and inflammation.'
The authors caution that their findings do not prove that frequent religious attendance leads to better physical health by enhancing immune function, but "this finding provides some support for the hypothesis that older adults who frequently attend religious services have healthier immune systems, although mechanism of effect remains unknown."
They recommend further research to replicate their findings and to establish the mechanisms by which religious attendance affects immune functioning.
The October issue of the Journal is part of the Global Theme Issue on Aging being published with 91 other international medical journals to bring attention to issues of aging.
The research was funded in part by the National Institute on Aging, the National Institute of Mental Health, the John Templeton Foundation and Monarch Pharmaceuticals.
The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine is published quarterly by Baywood Publishing Company and covers biopsychosocial aspects of primary care.
Dr. Koenig may be contacted at (919) 681-6633.
Release posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health