A new european study shows benefit of religiousness on health

Investigators at the University of Southern Denmark* analyzed data from a longitudinal study of 14,255 persons ages 50+ who participated in Wave 1 and at least one more wave (Wave 2, 4, and/or 5) of the Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE).

The study was conducted from 2004-2005 (Wave 1) to 2013 (Wave 5). European countries were categorized into three groups: Northern Europe (Denmark and Sweden), Southern Europe (Italy and Spain), and Western Europe (Austria, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands). Also assessed were marital and employment status.

Three measures of religiosity were administered in Wave 1 to the 71% who indicated they belonged to a religion (n=10,151):

  • Thinking about the present, about how often do you pray?” (with responses dichotomized into praying [65.4%] vs. not praying);

  • Have you been educated religiously by your parents?” (yes [74.0%] vs. no);

  • and “Have you done any of these activities in the last month?” (of the 7 options presented, one was « Taken part in a religious organization »


    Religiousness was defined as :

  • (1) religious (praying, taking part in a religious organization, and being religiously educated) (n=900, 8.9%),

  • (2) less religious (praying, but without taking part in a religious organization or being religiously educated) (n=823, 8.1%),

  • and (3) non-religious (neither praying nor taking part in a religious activities nor being religiously educated) (n=1,674, 16.5%).

    Health outcomes assessed were functional limitations in terms of activities of daily living (ADL), self rated health (SRH), long-term health problems, and depressive symptoms.

Results: Praying (Wave 1) was associated with fewer ADL limitations, better SRH, and fewer long-term health problems in Wave 4, but higher odds of depression in Wave 5. Participation in a religious organization was associated with fewer functional limitations, fewer depressive symptoms, and better SRH. Being religiously educated was associated with better SRH and fewer long-term health problems. Those who were religious (positive on all three religious measures) were less likely to have activity limitations and less likely to experience depressive symptoms compared with everyone else. When religious persons were compared to less religious individuals (praying only), the former had better SRH and fewer depressive symptoms. When less religious individuals were compared to the non-religious, the former were more likely to have depressive symptoms, but were less likely to have long-term health problems.

Researchers concluded: “Our findings suggest two types of religiousness: 1. Restful religiousness (praying, taking part in a religious organization, and being religiously educated), which is associated with good health, and 2. Crisis religiousness (praying without other religious activities) which is associated with poor health.”

Comment: These are interesting findings coming from secular Europe. The size of the sample, longitudinal nature, and sophistication of the data analysis all add to the credibility of these findings. The fact that “crisis praying” was associated with more depressive symptoms is also an improtant finding, suggesting that prayer may actually be a marker for psychological distress not a cause for it (i.e., psychological distress leading to more prayer, not vice versa). Obviously, it is better for your health to believe on a daily basis than only in a time of crisis.

*Ahrenfeldt, L. J., Möller, S., Andersen-Ranberg, K., Vitved, A. R., Lindahl-Jacobsen, R., & Hvidt, N. C. (2017). Religiousness and health in Europe. European Journal of Epidemiology.

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