By Brittany Karford
Sigmund Freud described religion as ?the universal compulsive neurosis of humanity.? Freud would surely have much to say on the notion that religion directly benefits health.
When research initially reported that religion increases life satisfaction and improves health, many scholars, like Freud, were skeptical.
Yet an increasing body of research is confirming that Americans who attend religious services at least once a week enjoy above-average health and lower rates of illness, including depression.
?Beyond a mere proclamation of a ?religion effect,? the findings are piquing the interest of scholars as to just what exactly is going on in Utah,? said Ray Merrill, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at BYU.
The percentage of adults 18-years and older who smoke cigarettes has historically been considerably lower in Utah than in the rest of the United States. Consequently, people in Utah experience the lowest overall cancer incidence and mortality rates in the nation, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Merrill?s research compares the health of Mormons and non-Mormons in Utah. His studies featuring mental health, life expectancy and cancer incidence all reached the same conclusion ? active members of the LDS church report having the best health status and the lowest levels of mental illness.
?Obviously within the LDS religion there?s a prescribed health code that has a protective effect,? Merrill said. ?The primary explanation for difference between LDS and non-LDS life expectancy, cancer rates, stroke, heart diseases, etc., is tobacco.?
The Mormon population exhibits several characteristics that are attributable to increased health, including a generally high education level, fewer sexual partners, and the complete lack of alcoholic substances and tobacco.
Merrill and his colleagues have also found that Mormon women are more likely to breastfeed, which reduces the risk of breast cancer, and that the LDS population is more likely to be screened for disease.
The life expectancy of LDS church members is longer than the non-LDS population in Utah by 7.3 years for males and 5.8 years for females, according to Merrill?s analysis. While low tobacco use contributes to these figures, it accounts for only 1.5 years of the 7.3 year difference for males and 1.2 years of the 5.8 year difference for females, leaving Merrill and his colleagues to look for explanations beyond tobacco use ? and they are not alone.
Higher life expectancy experienced among LDS members may be due to factors associated with religious activity in general. Furthermore, cross-religion studies show that the social support, lifestyle and behaviors incorporated in religious activity may have an independent protective effect against mortality.
Just how great is the effect of religion on mortality? A review done in 2003 by the National Institute of Health shows a 25 percent lower mortality rate for those who attend religious services at least weekly.
Studies supporting a link between religious-service attendance and health do not come solely from BYU, but also from secular institutions such as the universities of Texas, Michigan and California at San Francisco. Their authors don?t necessarily go to church or perceive the mortality benefits to be the hand of God.
Even as the research accumulates, Merrill said BYU still won?t publicize the findings that tout the health of the LDS people because they are concerned it would be bragging.
?Much of our work has been widely publicized, but we have been hesitant to actively report our findings in Utah,? Merrill said. ?Although the data shows LDS experience superior health in general to our non-LDS counterparts in Utah, we need to be sensitive in communicating this information.?
The LDS church is just one fraction of a growing religious body that demonstrates the effect of religion on health.
The number of Americans who attend religious services at least once a week jumped nearly three points to 27.5 percent during the two years ended in 2004, according to statistics released this month by the University of Chicago?s National Opinion Research Center.
The emerging growth of religious activity nationwide could mean good news for the nation?s health, and some changes in the field of medicine.
Dr. Marc Babitz, a professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah, said the discussion of the spiritual components of healing were allowed back into the classroom just three or four years ago. Babitz said the roots of healthcare were in religion, as the very first physicians were the spiritual leaders or shamans of a tribe or village. But as medicine evolved, it moved away from religion and into science.
?Medical school is heavily focused on the physical side,? Babitz said. ?It?s in danger of forgetting the emotional and spiritual side of patients.?
Babitz asks his students to consider the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components of health. He said to deny one of those parts doesn?t make sense. He teaches medical students to care for a whole human being.
?We finally have the opportunity to integrate spirituality into the medical curriculum,? Babitz said. ?I?ve been absolutely thrilled to bring it back.?