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Social Factors Health


Many studies have found religiosity to have a beneficial influence on the health of older adults. In reviewing the research on the association between religiosity and health, Jeffery Levin (1994) notes that there are several mechanisms through which religion may affect health. First, religious organizations promote behaviors that are congruent with good health outcomes, such as abstaining from smoking; drinking in moderation; and taking care of oneself through exercise and diet. In a study of older adults, Idler and Kasl (1997a) found that those who regularly attended religious services were more likely to engage in physical exercise, to drink only in moderation, and not to have smoked than were those who attended services less frequently or not at all.

Religious involvement may also lead to better health by providing individuals with social support and a feeling of social integration. Compared with individuals who never or rarely attend religious service, those who frequently attend also engage in more leisure activities, have contact with and feel closer to a greater number of friends and kin, and celebrate holidays that involve various social ties.

Social activities and close family relationships do explain some of the relationship between religion and health, but it seems that attendance at religious services also provides something more. Other possible factors linking religion and health involve the psychodynamics of belief systems, religious rites, and faith. Religious rites have a calming effect on members, and religious faith may increase the expectation of positive health outcomes. These factors may serve as a placebo and result in better health outcomes.

Much of the research that finds an association between religion and health cannot determine whether religion causes better health. It is possible that healthy individuals are better able to get to services, while those with worse health and disability are not able to participate. If this is the case, then it is health status that selects individuals into the position of religious participation. Idler and Kasl (1997b) examined data that tracked a group of older adults over twelve years and noted frequency of attendance at religious service and levels of functional ability at different time periods. They found that initial levels of religious participation protected against disability in later years; however, initial levels of disability did not affect attendance three years later. This suggests that religious involvement affects health to a greater extent than health affects religious involvement.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 2Social Factors Health - Social Support, Marriage, Religion, Socioeconomic Status