Church attendance may be good for your mental health, helping to ward off depression and the loss of cognitive function in old age, even decreasing the risk of Alzheimers. Such is the conclusion of a number of independent scientific reports summarised below in an article which recently appeared in The Church of England Newspaper:
There is no scientific evidence that Alzheimer’s disease can be prevented or its onset slowed down, an independent panel of scientists convened by the US National Institute of Health (NIH) has determined. However, an active church life and keeping physically and mentally fit were consistent with a decreased risk of the disease, the report found.
The study released by the NIH’s Office of Medical Applications of Research (OMAR) state-of-the-science conference program found that exercise, social interaction, brain puzzles, fish oil, nutritional supplements, or medications did not prevent the disease. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s report, Alzheimer’s Facts and Figures, 2010, there are over 5 million Americans living with the disease today.
The Alzheimer’s Research Trust Dementia 2010 reported that in Britain there were 822,000 people living with the disease. This number is expected to pass the one million mark by 2025 the report found. “People who reach the age of 65 have a one in three chance of having dementia before they die,” said the report’s author, Professor Alastair Gray of Oxford University’s Health Economic Research Centre in February.
The US panel reviewed 25 systematic reviews and 250 primary research studies, lead researcher Dr Martha Daviglus of Northwestern University said, and found that most studies could only show links, and did not prove cause and effect between a factor and disease prevention.
“We wish we could tell people that taking a pill or doing a puzzle every day would prevent this terrible disease, but current evidence doesn’t support this,” said Dr. Daviglus.
The panel examined scientific studies that took into account “nutrition, medical conditions, prescription and non-prescription medications, social/economic/behavioral factors, toxic environmental factors, and genetics.”
Only a few factors showed a “consistent link” with Alzheimer’s disease: diabetes, genetic predisposition, smoking, and depression.
Factors showing a “fairly consistent association” with decreased risk of the disease and a cognitive decline were: cognitive engagement and physical activities. However the “modification to risk” was “small to moderate” for Alzheimer’s and “small” for cognitive decline.
The current state of scientific evidence was not “enough to enable a confident assessment of links with [Alzheimer’s] or cognitive decline,” the report said, and “further research that addresses the limitations of existing studies is needed prior to be able to make recommendations on interventions.”
However, one of the studies reviewed found that regular church attendance was associated with less cognitive decline. A 2003 paper published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences entitled “Religion and cognitive dysfunction in an elderly cohort,” cited in the US NIH study concluded that “religious attendance may offer mental stimulation that helps to maintain cognitive functioning in later life, particularly among older depressed women.”
The paper concluded that doctors should prescribe church attendance in certain situations.
“Given the possible benefits religious attendance may have on cognitive functioning, it may be appropriate in certain instances for clinicians to recommend that clients reengage in religious activities they may have given up as a result of their depression,” the 2003 paper concluded.
Various explanations could be put forward for such an observable phenomona on a purely reductionistic level, including the importance for mental health of a vital connection with a community bigger than oneself and the sense of meaning that religion provides, and I would not deny those factors, but I would certainly like to assert that the knowledge that one's sins are forgiven and that one has peace with our Creator through Jesus Christ is a factor as well.
The pioneer American psychologist/philosopher William James still has much of interest to say on the empirically observable benefits of Christianity in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience. He found that those who believed in justification by grace through faith were more mentally healthy than those who adhered to religions of works righteousness whose practices focus on winning God's favour for temporal and spiritual benefits (not co-incidentally, several recent studies have shown that India is the most depressed society on earth). That makes sense if one believes that a conscience at peace with itself must have salutary effects on the mind and body of the subject. Along those lines, it would be very interesting to see a breakdown of the results cited above according to denominational/confessional allegiance.