Church attendance linked to better mental health in older people

Trinity study finds that over 50s who attend services regularly have larger social networks

A new paper from the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) focusing on the relationship between faith and mental health has found a correlation between church attendance and better mental health in people over the age of 50.

Of those who reported themselves to be religious, those who did not attend church regularly were found to experience greater symptoms of depression than their counterparts who attended more regularly.

Part of the relationship between service attendance and lower depressive symptoms is caused by the extended social network acquired by such attendance, according to the study. Participants who reported a higher level of religious attendance had larger social networks than those who attended with less frequency.

The paper found that a majority of participants attended church services regularly. However, over the six years of study between 2010 and 2016 it was found that attendance among participants decreased slightly. 

Differences were found between men and women with 86% of women reporting that religion was important to them, while only 76% of men reported the same. Religious attendance decreased by 2% for both men and women, from 89% to 87% and 91% to 89% respectively.

The paper discusses the relevance of the historical context in which the participants grew up where religious practice was the social norm. Lead author Joanna Orr highlighted how the importance in understanding how declines in church attendance among older people may impact those who are religious. According to Orr and Principal Investigator at TILDA, Professor Rose Anne Kenny, social networks and interactions emerge as important factors.

Kenny explained that as society becomes increasingly secular, it will be necessary to provide alternative ways for older people to socialise. 

The paper concludes by noting that there may be other mechanisms which resulted in the relationship between religious attendance and mental health. These would likely include lifestyle and psychological factors, mechanisms which could be studied in future to provide information for more targeted health interventions and ultimately improve the mental health of this older population.

The new findings were published today in the peer reviewed journal Research on Aging. The TILDA research group studies various aspects of the wellbeing of people aged 50 and over, including their physical and mental health, with a key purpose of informing policy.

Ciarán Ó Cuív

Ciaran Ó Cuív is the Deputy SciTech Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister Zoology student.