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Attending religious services associated with lower risk of mortality

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Attending religious services, regardless of the denomination, may be good for your health. That’s according to a recent study led by Dr. Ellen Idler, professor in epidemiology at Rollins. Specifically, Idler and her co-authors found that attending religious services, even occasionally, was associated with a lower risk of mortality than nonattendance.

The researchers conducted an empirical study on data collected from 2004 to 2014 through the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study (HRS), which surveyed social and economic determinants of mortality in middle-aged and older adults, including religious factors. The researchers found that—after controlling for other factors such as income level, age, race, and gender—people who attended religious services at least two times a month had a mortality risk 52 percent lower than non-attendees. Even people who went only occasionally—the Christmas and Easter or Passover and Yom Kippur crowd—had a 22 percent lower mortality risk.

“Those are fairly dramatic and surprising findings,” says Idler. Part of the protection afforded by religious service attendance can be explained by corresponding healthy lifestyle and social participation. HRS, which surveyed a representative sample of people aged 50 and older throughout the country, found that people who attended religious services were less likely to smoke or drink alcohol and more likely to exercise regularly than those who did not attend services. Similarly, church/synagogue/mosque goers were more likely to volunteer and engage in other social activities.

“Those explain some of the protective effect,” says Idler. “But even when we factor those variables out, religious service attendance still is associated with a reduced mortality risk.”

The findings showed that the overall protective effect of frequent attendance at services was comparable to the effects of higher levels of income and wealth. Co-authors of the study are Dr. Carol Hogue, Jules and Uldeen Terry Chair in Maternal and Child Health, Dr. John Blevins, associate professor of global health, and Dr. Mimi Kiser, assistant professor of global health.

The study builds upon theories advanced in the book Religion as a Social Determinant of Public Health (Oxford University Press, 2014), edited by Idler and featuring chapters by more than 30 other Emory faculty authors.

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"Study shows link between regular attendance at religious services and health and longevity" (Press release, 1/8/18)

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