Good grief: Religious people may have better health while mourning

Elderly people whose religious beliefs help them cope with the loss of a loved one seem to stay healthier than those who don't look to spiritual forces for support, according to a new study.

"Bereavement puts individuals at risk for numerous physical and mental health disorders and subsequently increases the likelihood that they will need to use health services," say authors Holly Prigerson, Ph.D., and Michelle J. Pearce of Yale University. Their study is published in the August issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine. However, "bereaved individuals who relied on religion to cope generally used outpatient medical services less frequently," they say.

The study included surveys with 265 bereaved persons with an average age of 62, followed by an interview four months later with 164 of the subjects. Researchers used a two-part question to assess how much each subject relied on religious coping. Thirty-three percent of the subjects were categorized as religious copers.

"Despite the expectation that health would decline given the documented health risks associated with bereavement, bereaved individuals who relied more heavily on religion to cope with their loss did not experience a significant increase in health problems," the researchers say.

Although the religious copers reported significantly more functional disabilities at the beginning of the study, they were just as healthy as the less religious after four months. The more religious subjects also reported making fewer visits to their doctors in the previous two months.

In contrast, the less religious subjects experienced a slight, but nonsignificant, deterioration in their health status during the follow-up period.

Pearce and colleagues suggest that since bereavement tends to increase mental and physical health problems, bereaved individuals may go to the doctor more often as a type of coping strategy. "However, bereaved individuals who use religi

Contact: Karen Peart
Center for the Advancement of Health

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