Numerous studies have shown that people who attend church live longer and it is clear that a healthier lifestyle accounts for only part of this longevity. 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.
In 2006 and 2007, 10,988 Adventists from Adventist Health Study-2 filled out a questionnaire about religious beliefs and practices, stressful life experiences, psychological characteristics and social life. A smaller group who live in Southern California gave blood and urine samples at a clinic and underwent physical performance testing (e.g., grip strength) and memory testing, and also allowed us to measure blood pressure, weight, body fat, and waist and hip circumference. In 2009, we sent out a second questionnaire to 7,000 participants to see how responses had changed. In 2010-2011 many of the original clinic members returned to a second clinic.
Preliminary Findings – General
We have learned some interesting things. Overall, Adventists report better physical and mental health than comparable non-Adventists.
- The advantage Adventists have over non-Adventists for mental health is bigger in older age groups than in younger age groups.
- Individuals who experienced childhood poverty are more religious. However, childhood poverty also relates to more abusive and conflicted families in childhood, particularly in White participants. Those who experienced an abusive home as a child are less likely to be religious.
- Religious individuals have less negative emotions and those who experienced an abusive home have more negative emotions. These negative emotions predict worse physical health.
- Some blood markers for inflammation were higher among Blacks than Whites, older than younger and non-vegetarians compared to vegetarians.
- Individuals who engaged in secular activities on Sabbath had poorer reported physical health. Those who said Sabbath relieved tensions and promoted feelings of calm and peace reported better mental health.
Preliminary Findings – Divorce
Not surprisingly, divorced individuals had more depressive symptoms than non-divorced individuals, but divorced individuals who used positive religious coping had fewer depressive symptoms than those who did not use positive religious coping. The three types of positive religious coping that were inversely associated with depressive symptoms were:
- Collaborative religious coping: Defined as forming a problem-solving relationship with God. This kind of coping is not a solitary process, but is aided by a caring and powerful God who is active in each person's life.
- Benevolent religious reappraisals: Problems are reinterpreted as part of a divine plan or as an opportunity for growth.
- Seeking spiritual comfort from God: Defined as engaging God through prayer or other devotional practices. This type of coping had the strongest inverse association with depressive symptoms.
Preliminary Findings – Fibromyalgia
Fibromyalgia is a medical condition in which subjects report widespread musculoskeletal pain, decreased pain threshold and multiple “tender-points” in the body. It is a difficult-to-treat medical condition that many claim is not a disease but rather a collection of symptoms. It is estimated fibromyalgia affects 2% (3.7 million people) of the U.S. population, 3.4% of women and 0.5% of men. While its cause is unknown, several factors appear to contribute, including genetics, disordered central pain processing, and environmental triggers (such as trauma and major life stressors). This study is concerned with the relationship between reporting a fibromyalgia diagnosis and environmental triggers.
- A physician-given fibromyalgia diagnosis was reported by 3.7% of study members, 4.8% of women and 1.3% of men. These numbers were likely higher than the national average because (1) The results are for fibromyalgia in one’s lifetime, not point-in-time and (2) Study members were older than the general population.
- Fibromyalgia was more common among Whites. It was also more common among those who did not attend of graduate from college, and among those with lower incomes.
- Individuals who had experienced sexual trauma or physical abuse were more likely to report a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, and those with physical abuse reported experiencing the most pain from their fibromyalgia.
- In a study examining fibromyalgia and osteoarthritis, the following were common factors that predicted pain-related restrictions in both conditions:
- Older age
- A high BMI
Results such as these highlight the importance of investigating traumatic experiences when medical professionals approach fibromyalgia patients or those susceptible for the development of the disease.
Future ARHS studies will focus on how religious beliefs and practices as well as psychosocial and biological factors contribute to later mental health, physical health, hospitalizations, and mortality.
Related publications from ARHS:
- Correlates of perceived pain-related restrictions among women with fibromyalgia.
- Divorce, religious coping, and depressive symptoms in a conservative protestant religious group.
- Traumatic experiences, major life stressors, and self-reporting a physician-given fibromyalgia diagnosis.
- Cohort profile: The biopsychosocial religion and health study (BRHS).
Jerry W. Lee, PhD
Professor of Health Promotion and Education
Loma Linda University School of Public Health