In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer is shocked to learn that his neighbor Ned Flanders is 65, despite looking maybe 40. Flanders attributes his youthful vitality to a daily dose of Vitamin C -- short for church. If this sounds far-fetched, know that a new study performed by a group at Penn State has found evidence to suggest a connection between faith and health.
The study examined the health and religious affiliation of 30,523 individuals from between 1972 and 2006. During that period, over 10,000 of the participants changed religion, and over 2,000 participants became nonreligious. The study also examined 423 members of a strict religious group in which 96 members changed their affiliation and 54 left the group completely.
The researchers found that individuals within a strict religious group were more likely to say they were in good health than individuals who had changed group affiliation or had left the group. In strict religious groups, 40% of participants claimed to be in excellent health, whereas the number dropped to 25% for members who changed religious groups, and to 20% for formers members who left religion altogether.
To some degree, the Ned Flanders theory makes sense. Flanders abstains almost totally from other Simpsons characters' vices such as alcohol and tobacco. Likewise, many strict religious group members abstain from drug use or even eating unhealthy foods. (Consider, for example, how Seventh Day Adventists are almost entirely vegetarian and vegan.) Members of religious groups also have a built-in support group that offers solidarity, a sense of belonging, and community. While these things can be provided by nonreligious social groups, they are not built into doctrine like they are in religious groups.
If there's a clear link between health and religion, it likely has little to do with protection from a higher power or anything of the sort. There could, however, be health advantages to membership in a community that abstains from using substances with documented detrimental effects on one's health or a community that takes a proactive approach to health in the first place by prioritizing healthy eating, exercise, and (depending on the organization) regular visits to healthcare providers. However, other strict religious groups -- such as those that deliberately shun medical technology and prioritize faith healing -- could challenge this study.
What do you think? Are there health advantages to having a strong faith?