Did the Devil Do It? Study Links Mortality, Religious Struggle
Kleyman, Paul, Aging Today
Although numerous studies have documented that church attendance is associated with a reduced risk of mortality, research presented at the National Council on the Aging and the American Society on Aging Joint Conference in Denver last spring revealed that certain forms of religious struggle can increase the risk of death.
"Elderly ill men and women who experience a religious struggle with their illness appear to be at increased risk of death, even after controlling for baseline health, mental health status and demographic factors," according to the research team. The study, "Religious Struggle as a Predictor of Mortality Among Medically Ill Elderly Patients:
A Two Year-Longitudinal Study," by psychologist Kenneth I. Pargament of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, Harold G. Koenig of the Duke University Medical Center (DUMC), Durham, N.C., and colleagues, appeared in the Aug. 13-27, 2001, issue of Archives of Internal Medicine.
FIRST OF ITS KIND
"To our knowledge, this is the first empirical study that has identified religious variables that increase the risk of mortality," said the authors. The study, conducted from January 1996 to March 1997 and supported by the Chicago-- based Retirement Research Foundation, followed the progress of 595 patients age 55 or older who were hospitalized at DUMCor the Durham Veterans Administration Medical Center. The researchers took measures of patients' demographic, as well as physical and mental health, at baseline as control variables and analyzed mortality over a two-year period to yield the main outcome measure.
The study found that a predictably higher risk of death was especially pronounced for older people facing three kinds of religious stress and struggle. Study participants who "wondered whether God had abandoned me" were at 28% higher risk for mortality during the 15-month study period, elders who "questioned God's love for me" were 22% more likely to die in that time, and people who "decided the devil made this happen" stood a 19% greater likelihood of dying during the research period than others.
Overall, the researchers determined that "although the magnitude of the effects associated with religious struggle was relatively small (from 6% to 10% increased risk of mortality), the effects remained significant even after controlling for a number of possible confounding variables."
The research team measured positive religious coping and religious struggle with illness through in-depth interviews using the Brief RCOPE, a 14-item questionnaire that assesses the extent to which a patient uses specific methods of religious coping. In order to compare their results with past research, researchers also asked participants questions common to earlier studies about their frequency of religious attendance, engagement in praying or other religious practices, and the importance of religion to them.
Of the older patient population in both hospitals, more than 95% are almost exclusively Christian, with a majority of patients representing Baptist and other conservative denominations or mainstream Protestant affiliations. Followup research identified 176 deceased participants and 268 survivors. The others either could not be located or were unable or unwilling to respond.
CORROBORATES PREVIOUS FINDINGS
"It could be argued that these results are idiosyncratic to a distinctive sample," the study said; however, the results also yielded evidence corroborating previous research showing that "frequency of church attendance was associated with reduced risk of mortality. …