Role of Religiosity in the Lives of the Low-Income Population: A Comprehensive Review of the Evidence. Findings for the General Population


Several recent literature reviews spanning hundreds of studies point to an overall positive association between religiosity and mental and physical health outcomes.

Several recent literature reviews spanning hundreds of studies point to an overall positive association between religiosity and mental and physical health outcomes (Koenig, McCullough, & Larson, 1999; Koenig, 2008a; Johnson, 2008). There are few studies that report detrimental effects for some aspects of religious beliefs under varying conditions (Williams & Sternthal, 2007). A limitation to these literature reviews is that the manner in which religiosity and spirituality is measured varies tremendously across studies, making the comparison of effects across studies problematic.

At a recent research conference sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, Child Trends and Baylor University in December 2008, Religious Practice and Health: What the Research Says, experts summarized the main research findings in the field. These conclusions, along with the results of recent reviews of religion and health, are summarized subsequently.

  • Mental health: Koenig (2008a) finds that studies of religious involvement suggest an association with better mental health outcomes by reducing psychological stress, buffering against depression, and speeding recovery from emotional disorders. These positive effects are in part due to religions effectiveness as a coping behavior. Johnsons (2008) recent review also concludes that there is a positive association between religion and lower rates of depression. He finds that 116 studies find positive effects of religion on reducing depression, 43 find null effects, and 4 find negative effects. Although the effects of various religious dimensions including denomination, individual beliefs, and religious participation on health are overall positive, given the data and methodological limitations, researchers note that these findings are suggestive rather than definitive.
  • Physical health: Recent reviews summarize that religious involvement is associated with less stress and depression, which in turn can positively affect stress-related medical conditions including cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure (Koenig, 2008a), and can lead to slower AIDS progression (Ironson, 2008). Johnsons (2008) review of religious involvement on decreasing hypertension finds 31 studies showing positive findings, 6 null, and 1 negative. While some authors conclude that these studies show significant positive effects on physical outcomes, other reviews critique the literature review methodologies and do not draw similar conclusions from the empirical literature specifically in the area of physical outcomes such as cardiovascular disease (Sloan & Bagiella, 2002). There are recent studies that suggest the strongest empirical evidence to date appears to be in mortality, with a 64% higher mortality risk for individuals between the ages of 51 and 61 who are nonattenders of church compared to those who attend on a frequent basis (Hummer, 2008).
  • Health services utilization and treatment: An active area of research identifies whether religious organizations are useful places to provide health screenings, health education, and other types of prevention services. Koenig (2008a) reports that health education programs in churches are associated with positive changes in diet, weight, exercise, and other health behaviors, particularly for minorities and low-income populations because they may have limited access to these services or information through traditional health care providers. Because religion has the potential to play an important role in how patients cope with stress and disease management, research has focused on the role that religiosity plays in making treatment decisions, especially in the case of terminal illnesses. Recent studies find that higher levels of positive religious coping among patients with advanced cancer are associated with a higher probability of receipt of intensive life-prolonging care (Phelps et al., 2009).

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