Attending church services benefits the health of both men and women, according to a Nord-Trøndelag health study (HUNT) carried out by researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
"We found that the more often HUNT participants went to church, the lower their blood pressure, even when we controlled for a number of other possible explanatory factors," said Torgeir Sørensen, a PhD candidate from the School of Theology and Religious Psychology Centre at Sykehuset Innlandet (Inland Hospital), in a statement.
The study is the first of its kind in Scandinavia, and researchers were surprised to find that their results tallied with similar studies in the United States.
"About 40 percent of the US population goes to church on a weekly basis, while the corresponding figure in Nord-Trøndelag County is 4 percent. For that reason, we did not expect to find any correlation between going to church and blood pressure in Nord-Trøndelag. Our findings, however, are almost identical to those previously reported from the United States. We were really surprised," Sørensen said.
Looking at a cross section of the population, the researchers selected church attendance as a variable to represent religious activity, while blood pressure was taken as a variable to indicate overall health. And the study found there to be a clear link between the two.
But Professor Jostein Holmen from NTNU's Faculty of Medicine, and one of the authors of the study, injected a note of caution when interpreting the findings.
“Since this is a cross-sectional study, it is not possible to say whether it was a health condition that affected the participants' religious activity, or whether it was the religious activity that affected the state of participants' health," he said
To establish whether such a causal relationship exists, researchers would have to look at the same people who participated in the study but at different times.
Torgeir Sørensen also noted that the study, published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, had focused only on Christian worshipers.
"The study of the relationship between religion and health has rarely focused on other religions, such as Judaism and Islam. It is therefore difficult to say anything about whether or not this same association can be found in these communities," he said.
Story continues below…
The inhabitants of Nord-Trøndelag County have taken part in three surveys since the health study's inception in 1984. In all, the vast HUNT databases contain information on 120,000 individuals, with early studies indicating there are health benefits to be derived from humour and participation in cultural activities.
"It would appear that the data we have been recording in the HUNT studies about religious beliefs is actually relevant to your health, and this is interesting in itself," Holmen said.
"The fact that church-goers have lower blood pressure encourages us to continue to study this issue. We're just in the start-up phase of an exciting research area in Norway," he said.