The religiously inclined don't necessarily have to wait for the hereafter to reap the rewards of faith, health researchers say.
In the latest of a series of studies on the theology-biology link, Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc, and colleagues at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., discovered a connection between church attendance, Bible study, and blood pressure. Religiously active older people tend to have lower blood pressure than those who are less active, the researchers conclude.
But anyone hoping to take advantage of the links had better practice religion the old-fashioned way. One of the most surprising discoveries related to religious television and radio programming: people who tuned in to these programs actually had higher blood pressures than those who did not.
The findings are reported in the July issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. The research was part of a National Institutes of Health-sponsored initiative, "Establishment of Populations for Epidemiologic Studies of the Elderly."
The researchers examined the health and habits of older adults in an overwhelmingly Protestant area of North Carolina over a six-year period. Nearly 4,000 randomly selected individuals 65 years or older were interviewed and examined in 1986, then again in 1989-90 and 1992-93. A total of 2,391 persons completed the three phases.
When their blood pressures were measured, consistent differences were found. People who attended religious services at least once a week posted lower readings than those who attended less often.
The likelihood of having a diastolic blood pressure of 90 or higher, the level most often associated with strokes or heart attacks, was 40 percent lower among those who attended a religious service one a week and prayed or studied the Bible once a day, than among those who did so less often. "This was a large and clinically significant difference," says Koenig, "one of the largest effects thus far identified on cardiovascular health."
Associations between religious activity and blood pressure were particularly strong among African-Americans and among the "young elderly," those 65 to 74 years old.
The authors caution that their findings "may be limited by the geographical location of our sample in the Bible-belt South. Indeed, 53 percent of our sample attended church weekly or more often, 56 percent prayed daily or more, and 75 percent watched religious TV or listened to religious radio at least once a week." Older Americans across the nation, however, tend to be similarly religious, they add.
In previous work, the authors reported links between religious observance and enhanced immune function in older adults. They cautioned then, as with this study, that more research is needed before it can be said that religious activity causes improvement in physical health.
Regarding the blood pressure study, they concede that measured differences between groups were relatively small, but note that even slight decreases in blood pressure can significantly decrease the danger of cardiovascular disease.
The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine is published quarterly by Baywood Publishing Company and covers biopsychosocial aspects of primary care. For information about the Journal, contact the editor, Thomas E. Oxman, MD, at (603) 650-6147.