By Heather Reifsnyder
Through the Adventist Health Studies, scientists at Loma Linda University have long examined how lifestyle and environmental factors influence health and lifespan. The results have shown that being a Seventh-day Adventist predicts greater longevity due to exercise, a vegetarian diet, not smoking, eating nuts, and a system of social support. When researchers factor out these characteristics and several other psychosocial variables, however, the facts reveal that yet another habit leads to longer life—church attendance.
With this in mind, a team of researchers from several LLU schools secured funding from the National Institute of Aging to examine how religious beliefs and practices influence morbidity and mortality. They began work in 2003 and have since completed the first stage of data collection in 2007.
The researchers have collected detailed data on religion and health from a random sample of 10,988 participants from the Adventist Health Study-2. Additionally, 508 of these individuals came to LLU clinics to provide more information through laboratory and functional tests including blood work, saliva and urine samples, biometrics, blood pressure, physical functioning, and memory function.
Principal investigator Jerry Lee, PhD, says that the team will examine the data to determine if there is a connection between religious practices and changes in physical and mental status, as well as mortality. How, for example, does an attitude of working together with God to solve problems affect health? Conversely, what might be the physiological effects of a belief that one has been abandoned by God?
“Driving enthusiasm for the project are serious gaps in our understanding,” says Dr. Lee. “We wanted to understand the biological, psychological, and social pathways by which religious beliefs and practices influence mental health, physical health, morbidity, and mortality for better or for worse.”
The researchers do not have the answers to all their questions yet, but results so far have shown that both black and white Seventh-day Adventists have better perceived mental and physical health than do individuals in national samples. Interestingly, older Seventh-day Adventists (65 and above) report higher levels of mental health than national norms, while younger Church members are on par with the norms.
Dr. Lee and the other team members have written an article about the study that will soon be published in the International Journal of Epidemiology. Moreover, they have presented at least eight papers on this project at scientific conferences.