Study suggests connection between mental and physical health

June 2, 2011


A substudy of the long-term epidemiological Adventist Healthy Study-2 (AHS-2) has shown a connection between mental and physical health and has been submitted for publication in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

“Other researchers have found a direct connection between religion and physical health,” said Kelly Morton, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology, School of Science and Technology, and associate research professor of family medicine, School of Medicine. “However, it is clear in our model that the link to religion, following early childhood risky family exposure, is through mental health to physical health,” Dr. Morton continued.

The substudy, better known as the Biopsychosocial Religion and Health Study (BRHS), was based on the hypothesis that manifestations of religion impact allostatic load—the cumulative burden of acute and chronic stress—to ultimately affect physical health.

When this load becomes too great, the body systems begin to deteriorate, and physical health typically declines for individuals. “A high allostatic load earlier in adulthood is likely related to choric exposure and subsequent fight or flight responses,” Dr. Morton said. “This state of emotional arousal causes hormones to ramp up and produces wear and tear on the organ systems.”

A heightened allostatic load is a predictor of future decline in mental and physical health, the findings suggest. The research team will examine these effects on memory and physical function in another study over the next year.

“A primary factor for a dramatically increased allostatic load is depression,” Dr. Morton said. “Negative emotions, such as hostility, cynicism, and irritability, take a major toll on physical stress responses and eventually erode physical health.” Religion can help diminish or exacerbate the factors that lead to depression, Dr. Morton said. “Some religious beliefs can lead to optimism, comfort, and hope, while others may lead to fear and anger.”

Dr. Morton and her research team see three possible hypotheses to test: religion leads to better lifestyle choices and fewer high-risk behaviors, such as alcohol abuse and smoking; organized religious activity provides social support; and/or religious beliefs provide strength, comfort, and positive coping to lead to positive emotions and better mental health.

“Why and how does religion impact health?” Dr. Morton asked. “It is my belief that religion likely works in multiple ways, such as encouraging a better lifestyle, better mental health, and stronger social support.”

The study is based on five waves of data, beginning with the original AHS-2 questionnaire in 2003, with 96,000 Seventh-day Adventists responding.

In 2004, the questionnaire was followed up by a hospitalization survey. In 2007, the BRHS survey was answered by 10,988 randomly selected AHS-2 respondents. A 2009 hospitalization survey and 2010 follow-up BRHS survey followed.

>“We have an amazing amount of data on these individuals,” Dr. Morton said. “Adventists tend to have better overall mental health, when compared with the general population, so we can follow them for some time.

”There is a major connection between a difficult childhood and depression in adulthood,“ Dr. Morton said. ”Children who have been sexually abused may actually believe as adults that God is punishing them.“

Interestingly, childhood poverty has been shown to often lead to a more religious adulthood, implying an inverse relationship between material wealth and religious fervor.

The idea for a study of the possible connection between religion and health began in 2003, when Gary Fraser, M.B.Ch.B., Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, School of Public Health, and professor of medicine and preventive medicine, School of Medicine; and James Walters, Ph.D., associate scholar, Center for Christian Bioethics, and professor of religion and ethical studies, School of Religion, began gathering a group of scholars and researchers to carry out the study.

The team presently working on the BRHS includes Drs. Fraser, Walters, and Morton; Jerry Lee, Ph.D., professor of health promotion and education, School of Public Health; Chris Ellison, Ph.D., from the University of Texas, at Austin; and Mark Haviland, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry, LLU School of Medicine.

”People should carefully evaluate their life structure,“ Dr. Morton said. ”Taking advantage of the Sabbath rest, exercising more, working toward more loving and supportive relationships, and seeking treatment for depression—when needed—are ways to reduce the allostatic load, leading to better health.“


This story was originally published in the May 25, 2011, edition of Today.