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Elderly Church Attenders Have Healthier Immune Systems

According to researchers at Duke University Medical Center, elderly who are regular church attenders have healthier immune systems than those who are not.

In a study of 1,718 older adults in North Carolina, researchers found that those who attended church at least once a week were only one-half as likely as non-attenders to have elevated levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), an immune system protein involved in a wide variety of age-related diseases. The effect remained even when controlling for a variety of demographic and health-related factors.

While a sizeable body of research shows that church attendance is associated with better physical health in general, this was one of the first studies to examine the specific pathways by which religion affects health. According to lead author, Dr. Harold Koenig, the purpose of this study was to "understand the physiological and biological mechanisms responsible for such effects."

When designing this study, the researchers noted that high levels of stress are associated with the release of hormones, such as cortisol, that impair immune functioning. It was hypothesized that if religious commitment could improve stress control, it would also keep down the production of biological substances that impair the body's ability to fight off disease. One such substance or marker of immune function is interleukin-6 (IL-6). High levels of IL-6 seem to weaken the immune system, making the body more susceptible to a variety of diseases. Therefore, one way that religious attendance may enhance better health is by lowering stress which will reduce the "production of IL-6 and the release of cortisol and other substances that adversely affect the immune system."

NIHR president and study co-author, Dr. David Larson, noted, "This study is an important step forward in the field of religion and health. Examining religion's effects on specific biological pathways will greatly enhance the credibility and impact of future studies in this area."

These findings were drawn from the Established Populations for Epidemiologic Studies in the Elderly (EPESE), Duke site, a longitudinal study involving over 4,000 adults age sixty-five or over living in central North Carolina.

Reference: Koenig, H.K., Cohen, H.J., et al. "Attendance at Religious Services, Interleukin-6, and Other Biological Parameters of Immune Function in Older Adults." Int'l Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 1997; 27(3):233-250.

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