The authors concluded consider that religiousness and spirituality are undervalued in relation to morbidity and mortality, so physicians should take this into account in their patients

The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”.

Some religious groups say that within a holistic concept of the human person, the unity of body, mind and spirit can affect health, while others go even further by stating that religious practice can influence individual behaviour by modifying its development. However, with respect to mortality and morbidity, this does not appear to be scientifically demonstrated as yet.

Thus, in an article published in 2011 (Explore 7; 234-238, 2011) that analysed meta-analyses performed between 1994 and 2009, evaluating the possible relationship between attendance at religious services and mortality, the authors concluded that in the group who attended religious services, mortality was reduced by 18% compared to non-attendees.

However, some authors question the validity of these studies, arguing that the evidence is often weak due to the poor study methodology and design, so causality between religiousness and decreased mortality cannot be claimed.

In relation to this, last 16 May, a study was published (JAMA 176; 777-785, 2016) that looked at this topic in more depth, trying to avoid some of the shortcomings of previous studies, especially the fact of not having taken into account certain confounding factors.

Data from the study in question

In order to conduct the study, the authors used data from the “Nurses’ Health Study”, which included a large cohort of North American women who attended or did not attend religious services, carefully assessing the so-called confounding factors, such as diet, lifestyle, medical history and race, as well as carrying out long-term follow-up.

The study in question included 74,534 women, among which 13,537 deaths occurred, including 2,721 due to cardiovascular diseases and 4,479 due to cancer. The surveys were conducted between 1992 and 2012.

After adjusting for several confounders, the group was divided into two: those who attended religious services more than once a week, and those who had never done so. They found that mortality in those who attended religious services was reduced by 33%, and that the likelihood of suffering a cardiovascular event was 0.73 and of suffering cancer was 0.79, with respect to the control group.

In the aforementioned study, the authors stated that the findings could not be generalisable to the population of other countries or areas with limited religious freedom, but it is appropriate for the North American population, since groups of patients with similar characteristics were evaluated.

This study is restricted to the specific time period in which it was conducted, so it is possible that attending religious services might change in other time periods. It seems advisable to extend forthcoming studies to other religious practices and other aspects of religiousness that could affect the results discussed above.

The authors concluded that frequent attendance at religious services is associated with a significantly lower risk of all-cause mortality, as wells as cardiovascular and cancer mortality. They also consider that religiousness and spirituality are undervalued in relation to morbidity and mortality, so physicians should take this into account in their patients.

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justo aznar Definitiva

Justo Aznar

Bioethics Observatory

Catholic University of Valencia