Religion and Health

Religious activity is associated with a variety of positive health outcomes for children, adults, and the elderly. Such health outcomes include lower risk of cancer and pulmonary dysfunction, as well as better psychological health and higher life satisfaction.

  • Mortality Rates. Mortality rates for men and women who frequently attend religious services appear to be lower than the rates for those who attend less often. Frequency of religious service attendance was significantly associated with lower mortality risk for the overall population as well as for each gender and racial group. Respondents who attended religious services more than once a week tended to have lower risk of mortality compared to those who attended religious services less frequently.1
  • Cancer. People who attend religious services more frequently tend to be less likely to succumb to cancer, even when taking into account age and gender. Respondents who attended religious services frequently tended to have lower cancer mortality rates than peers who attended less frequently, controlling for age and gender.2
  • Stress. Individuals who attend religious services more frequently exhibit, on average, lower levels of stress than peers who attend less often. Even when controlling for a variety of sociodemographic variables, individuals who reported greater attendance at religious services had higher levels of well-being and lower levels of stress than peers who attended church less often.3
  • Psychological Health. People who frequently participate in religious social activities and pray with others are less likely to exhibit depression, anxiety disorder, and phobia. Compared with other peers, individuals who reported higher levels of social religiosity (e.g. attended church activities often, liked to pray and worship with others) had significantly lower levels of major depression, anxiety disorder, and phobia.4
  • Preventative Health. Elderly men and women who consider religion to be very important in their lives are more likely to avail themselves of preventive health services than peers who say religion is not important to them. Compared with peers who reported low levels of religious salience, elderly men and women who said that religion was very important in their lives were nearly twice as likely to use preventative health services such as flu shots, cholesterol screening, prostrate screening and pap smears.5
  • Pulmonary Function. Rates of decline in pulmonary function among the elderly who attend religious services regularly are, on average, one-half the rate for peers who never attend. Among elderly men and women who attended church regularly, the rate of decline in pulmonary function was only about half the rate it was for peers who never attended religious services.6
  • Depression. In one study, adolescents whose mothers attended religious services frequently and considered religion important were less likely to experience major depression. Among a sample of 150 adolescents, those whose mothers attended church more frequently and assigned higher levels of importance to religion in their lives were less likely to experience major depression than peers whose mothers reported lower levels of religiosity.7
  • Childhood Sadness and Loneliness. Kindergarteners and first-graders whose fathers frequently attend religious services are less likely to say they were sad or lonely. Children whose fathers attended church and those whose parents both attended church frequently were less likely to report feeling sad or lonely.8
  • Suicide. On average, youths who attend religious services and activities more often and assign a higher importance to religion in their lives are less likely to consider suicide or attempt suicide. Three aspects of religiosity were associated with a small reduction in the likelihood that adolescents would think of suicide or attempt suicide: religious activity (-.05), church attendance (-.09) and the importance assigned to religion (between -.08 and -.11).9
  • Life Satisfaction. Individuals who regularly attend religious services are more likely to say that they are very happy with their lives and optimistic about the future. Compared with individuals who seldom or never attended religious services, individuals who attended services at least once a week were nearly twice as likely to report being very happy with their lives and a third more likely to say they were optimistic about the future.10


  1. Robert A. Hummer, Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison, “Religious Involvement and U.S. Adult Mortality,” Demography 36, No. 2 (May 1999): 273-285.
  2. Doug Oman, John H. Kurata, William J. Strawbridge, and Richard D. Cohen, “Religious Attendance and Cause of Death over 31 Years,” International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 32, No. 1 (March 2005): 69-89.
  3. Christopher G. Ellison, Jason D. Boardman, David R. Williams, and James S. Jackson, “Religious Involvement, Stress, and Mental Health: Findings from the 1995 Detroit Area Study,” Social Forces 80, No. 1 (September 2001): 215-249.
  4. Kenneth S. Kendler, Xiao-Qing Liu, Charles O. Gardner, Michael E. McCullough, David Larson, and Carol A. Prescott, “Dimensions of Religiosity and Their Relationship to Lifetime Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders,” American Journal of Psychiatry 160, No. 3 (March 2003): 496-503.
  5. Maureen R. Bejnamins and Carolyn Brown, “Religion and Preventative Health Care Utilization among the Elderly,” Social Science & Medicine 58, No. 1 (January 2004): 109-118.
  6. Joanna Maselko, Laura Kubzansky, Ichiro Kawachi, John Staudenmayer, and Lisa Berkman, “Religious Service Attendance and Decline in Pulmonary Function in a High-Functioning Elderly Cohort,” The Society of Behavioral Medicine 32, No. 3 (2006): 245- 253.
  7. Lisa Miller, Virginia Warner, Priya Wickramaratne, and Myrna Weissman,” Religiosity and Depression: Ten-Year Follow-Up of Depressed Mothers and Offspring,” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 36, No. 10 (October 1997): 1416-1425.
  8. John P. Bartkowski, Xiaohe Xu, and Martin L. Levin, “Religion and Child Development: Evidence from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study,” Social Science Research 37, No. 1 (March 2008): 18-36.
  9. Michael J. Donahue and Peter L. Benson, “Religion and the Well- Being of Adolescents,” Journal of Social Issues 51, No. 2 (Summer 1995): 145-160.
  10. Arthur C. Brooks, Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--and How We Can Get More of It, (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 44.