Religion may be good for health: study

The Penn State University study has found that people in a strict religious group were twice more likely to report that they were in good health compared to those who left the group.

Sociologist Christopher Scheitle, who led the study at the university in Pennsylvania, said: "Previous research showed some association between belonging to a religious group and positive health outcomes."

"We became interested in what would happen to your health if you left a religious group," Scheitle was quoted as saying by LiveScience.

For their study, the researchers examined information from 423 strict religious group members who were surveyed between 1972 and 2006. During that time, approximately 96 members switched to other religions and about 54 dropped out of religion completely.

The researchers defined strict religions, such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and Jehovah's Witnesses, as exclusive groups with strict social, moral and physical guidelines for members.

They found that about 40 per cent of members reported they were in excellent health.

However, only 25 per cent of those who switched to another religion reported they were in excellent health. And the percentage of those who dropped out of religion completely was only 20 per cent.

However, the researchers said, the study does not show that leaving a group causes poor health.

Poor health actually could prompt a member to leave the group. For instance, they explained, an unhealthy member may question the belonging to a group that promotes the belief in an all-powerful being who has failed to heal his or her condition.

Still, several factors could explain why health may decline for those who switched or dropped out of religion, the researchers said.

Strict groups may require members to abstain from unhealthy behaviours, such as alcohol and tobacco use. These groups also create both formal and informal support structures to promote positive health, said Scheitle.

The social bonds of belonging to the group might be another factor for better health. "The social solidarity and social support could have psychological benefits," Scheitle said.

Religious beliefs may also promote better health by providing hope and encouraging positive thinking, the researchers said. Besides losing connection to these health benefits, exiting a religious group may increase stressful situations, they said.

"You could lose your friends or your family becomes upset when you leave, leading to psychological stress and negative health outcomes," Scheitle added.

The study is published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour.

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