Harvard medical school study finds correlations between health and spirituality

By Jelleke Vanooteghem/Public domain via Unsplash

Spiritual practices during childhood and adolescence may lead to better health and well-being outcomes in early adulthood, according to a new study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

The study of those who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth found greater life satisfaction and positivity in their 20s and that the religious youth were less likely to have depressive symptoms, smoke, use illicit drugs or have a sexually transmitted infection – than those raised with less regular spiritual habits.

This study was funded by the Templeton Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. It was published last month in the American Journal of Epidemiology.

Previous studies have found adults’ religious involvement led to better health and well-being outcomes and lowered the risk of premature death.

“These findings are important for both our understanding of health and our understanding of parenting practices,” said one of the researchers, Ying Chen, who recently completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard Chan School. “Many children are raised religiously, and our study shows that this can powerfully affect their health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.”

Chen is now a research scientist with the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science’s Human Flourishing Program.

The team analyzed health data from mothers in the Nurses’ Health Study II (NHSII) and their children in the Growing Up Today Study (GUTS). The sample included more than 5,000 youth who were followed for between 8 and 14 years. The researchers controlled for many variables such as maternal health, socioeconomic status, and history of substance abuse or depressive symptoms, to try to isolate the effect of religious upbringing.

Those who prayed or meditated at least daily while growing up were 16% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults, 30% less likely to have started having sex at a young age, and 40% less likely to have a sexually transmitted infection compared to those who never prayed or meditated.

The study can be accessed here.

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