Believers gain no health advantage

Among depressed or socially isolated heart-attack survivors, those who hold spiritual beliefs, regularly attend religious services, or frequently pray or meditate experience new cardiac symptoms and die from various causes at the same rate as their nonreligious counterparts do, researchers find.

Intrigued by prior reports that religious involvement fosters physical health, a team led by psychologist James A. Blumenthal of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., studied 503 patients who were part of a larger investigation of individuals treated for heart attacks. The selected volunteers were depressed or reported having few social contacts. Participants completed a survey of religious attitudes and practices, and their health was assessed every 6 months for an average of 18 months.

Particularly religious patients—whether identified by self-reported beliefs, attendance at worship services, or a propensity to pray or meditate—showed no health or survival advantages over patients who lacked religious beliefs, the scientists report in the July/August Psychosomatic Medicine.

This finding held after the researchers accounted for volunteers’ sex, education level, race, and physical status at the start of the study.

It’s not clear whether findings from this group of depressed and isolated patients apply to heart attack survivors in general, the researchers caution.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.