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Study links religion to lower mortality rates amond elderly

"I don't know if people who have a stronger faith have an easier road, but it gives you something to hold onto," said Elizabeth Clay, an 81-year-old resident of the United Methodist Retirement Community on Erwin Road.

Clay and others in the community gather weekly for a church school meeting. While last week's passage discussed the Jews' exodus from Egypt, the regular attendees may be receiving much more than knowledge of the Bible-they may be getting an extended lifetime.

Medical Center researchers' study of nearly 4,000 elderly North Carolinians found that those who attended religious services every week are 46 percent less likely to die over a six-year period than those who attended less often or not at all.

Even after controlling for such factors as medical illnesses, depression, social connections, health practices and demographics, the researchers found that religious attendees were still 28 percent less likely to die.

The study, published in the July-August issue of Journal of Gerontology, medical sciences edition, is part of a series of studies connecting religious attendance with overall health. Dr. Harold Koenig, the study's author and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said many aspects of church attendance may explain his results.

"People who are part of a religious group tend to cope better with stress," he said. Therefore, he added, they are less likely to become depressed and will save their bodies from stress-induced problems. From a biological standpoint, stress has a negative impact on the endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems.

Clay agreed that religion has helped her cope with life's problems. "[Religion] does have a great deal of positive effect on health," she said. "I can't imagine what anyone would do in time of great stress or tragedy without religion."

Koenig also hypothesized that church attendance provides social support and might therefore lead to a longer life. "Those who are part of a community seem to do better," he said.

Milton Hadley, chaplain at UMRC, said the community has a number of religiously based outreach programs. For example, there is a group of retirees who commit their time to visiting and assisting others.

"I think that's one of the things that keeps these people going," Hadley said. "They're always trying to outreach to other people and to themselves."

Although the community is officially a separate entity from the Methodist Church and anyone is allowed to live there, most of the residents have a strong spiritual background. He added that 74 percent of residents in the independent living section of the community attend some form of religious program each week.

"I've been going to Sunday school and to church for 90 years," said Eileen Lineberger, who is 95.

Others at the church school agreed that religion has consistently been part of their life. "It gives us strength and it gives us power," said Ethel Beckman, 92.

Will Willimon, dean of the Chapel, said he thinks the attendance rate of elderly people has nearly doubled in the past 10 years. "There's merit to the study and I've followed it with great interest," he said.

Beyond the social and psychological benefits of church attendance, the religious aspects may also contribute to lower mortality rates. "The average age at the methodist retirement communities [on Erwin Road] is 87 years old. I think that tells you something about what the kind of belief system they have does," Hadley said.

In the United States, the average life expectancy for men is approximately 73 years-old and 80 years-old for women.

Koenig's current findings apply predominantly to Christians as they made up 90 percent of his sample population. While many aspects of religion overlap a variety of faiths, "different religious groups stress different things in different ways," he said. "We need to study these and see if these effects can be generalized."

But residents say the study only supports something they have known for a long time. "I think those who aren't brought up in a religious setting are missing a great deal," UMRC resident Edith Pierce concluded.

Meredith Young contributed to this story.

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