University of Chicago receives grant to study connections between religious beliefs and health

04/13/05

Early findings show strong impact on reducing depression among blacks

A belief in God may improve a person's physical health, according to University of Chicago researchers who are launching the first comprehensive study to examine the relationship between religious attitudes and health.

Among the researchers' initial discoveries is that African Americans who say they have a strong relationship with God were significantly less likely to report depressive symptoms than those who did not. Among white participants in the study, there was very little impact of religious belief and reported depression.

In order to determine why African Americans were more likely to have depression reduced by religious belief, the team measured feelings of alienation, which they hypothesized may have an impact on depression. Because of discrimination and related experiences, African Americans reported higher levels of alienation than did whites, the team found.

"We reasoned that when one's group is the target of cultural bias, connections with one's countrymen may not be sufficient to reduce feelings of alienation. Reliance on a power that supercedes that of the country, God, may be beneficial, however," said team leader John Cacioppo, the Tiffany and Margaret Blake Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology at the University.

"Thus the consequences of a personal relationship with God may confer benefits in circumstances beyond the reach of relationships with individuals," he added.

The Pennsylvania-based John Templeton Foundation has given the University $1.8 million to launch the study, which will be coupled with University work on aging supported with $7.5 million from the National Institute on Aging of the Department of Health and Human Services. That work is an interdisciplinary effort to understand the connections between longevity and loneliness. Religious belief, like social support, could have beneficial effects on people's health, scholars contend.

Because the research is multi-disciplinary, including researchers in University of Chicago departments of Medicine, Psychology, Sociology, History, and Human Development, and the Divinity School, it provides a useful framework to study scientifically the connections between religious belief and health, said Cacioppo, the leader of both studies. Cacioppo is one of the nation's leading experts on social relations and aging.

"The study is based on an evolutionary model of humans as social beings in which the motive to form and maintain attachments and interpersonal relationships is in part genetically determined," Cacioppo said. As a result, people are born with the capacity for spirituality and humanity, Cacioppo said. The work will explore how this inclination to see a spiritual understanding, a relationship with God, varies among individuals because of social and environmental influences.

Measurable effects of strong spirituality, regardless of religion, are improved physiological functioning, health and well being, especially in difficult times, Cacioppo said. Those benefits of belief in God accrue over time and are an important aspect of dealing with aging, he said.

Subjects in the NIA project--the Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study--have been asked a battery of questions related to their health, exercise habits and emotions, as well as church attendance and religiosity.

For that study, the researchers began a series of day-long interviews and medical tests that began in 2002 and will continue through 2006. The study includes 230 African Americans, Hispanics and whites between the ages of 50 and 67 from Chicago and the suburbs. The researchers are gathering extensive medical histories, health assessments, health care utilization measures, health behaviors measures, sleep quality indices, personality measures and life events assessments.

The Templeton grant will permit researchers to do these additional research projects:

  • A study of young adults, with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), to examine spirituality and brain patterns.
  • A study of young adults to explore their mental representation of God. They will be asked a range of questions including whether they communicate with a higher being, feel inner peace through a relationship with a higher being or do not have an awareness at all of God's presence.
  • A study of the older members of the NIA project, entitled "The Lord Is My Shepherd," that looks at the way belief promotes good mental health and reduces feelings of loneliness and depression.
  • A study called "Something to Live For" that examines whether religious belief diminishes social conflicts, improves sleep and provides for successful aging.
  • A study to determine the relationship between cardiovascular health and belief in God, based on the religion-related questions that have been asked since the beginning of the study with older adults.

Source: Eurekalert & others

Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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