For He who formed our frame,
Made man a perfect whole ;
And made the body’s health depend
Upon the living soul.
-Jones Very, 1863
This is one of my favorite poems about religion and health,” says Dr. Jerry Lee, PhD, professor in Health Promotion and Education at the Loma Linda University School of Public Health. He adds, “Ellen White made a very similar statement [in Patriarchs and Prophets] when she said, ‘Faith in God’s love and overruling providence lightens the burdens of anxiety and care. It fills the heart with joy and contentment in the highest or lowliest lot. Religion tends to promote health, to lengthen life, and to heighten our enjoyment of all its blessings.’”
Ever since a National Geographic article entitled “The Secrets of Long Life” was published in 2005 by researcher Dan Buettner, citizens of Loma Linda have prided themselves in being identified as some of the healthiest people in the world. A subsequent book, Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, also by Buettner, was published in 2008.
According to a cohort profile published in the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2008, research in 1969 found that among individuals surviving past age 35 Adventist women in California lived 3.7 years longer than their counterparts and Adventist men 6.2 years longer. In a later, larger California sample, the differences were even more prominent—4.4 years for women and 7.3 years for men. Exercise, vegetarian diet, not smoking, eating nuts and social support have been found to predict longevity in Adventists. Yet even when these and several psychological variables are controlled, church attendance still predicts greater longevity.
As more eyes turned to Loma Linda as an epitome of healthy living, Dr. Lee and others at Loma Linda University realized that interest was growing regarding the association of both mental and physical health with religion or spirituality. They began a sub-study of the Adventist Health Study in 2006 called the Adventist Religion and Health Study.
“If you’re involved religiously, then you’re less likely to report depression and anxiety and negative feelings,” says Dr. Lee. “Religious engagement tended to lower negative social interactions [and] improved physical health because it lowered negative emotionality.
Just like the well-known optimist/pessimist dichotomy, religion can have positive or negative effects on a person depending on their mindset. A pessimistic person may work out their problems in life viewing them as God punishing them for their sins while an optimist will tend to work with God through their problems instead of attributing the problems to him.
“There’s a set of religious variables called positive religious coping that essentially is things like feeling that you’re working together with God on a problem, feeling that if you are experiencing difficulties, God is going to help you learn something from it,” says Dr. Lee. “Positive religious coping, versus negative religious coping, if you have a stressful event for you, you just leave it in God’s hands and ignore it or you believe God is punishing you for your sins.”
The study is ongoing and utilizes a variety of Adventists ranging from not religious to very religious. Another aspect investigated was sabbath activities. “We have found that there’s a relationship between Sabbath keeping and mental health.” Says Dr. Lee.
According to the AHRS website, “In this study we are trying to understand, in a nationwide sample of Adventists, what specific aspects of religion account for better or worse health. We are also trying to trace some of the biopsychosocial pathways to health. The study research group includes members from the Schools of Public Health, Medicine, Religion, and the Department of Psychology. The study is funded by the National Institute on Aging.”