Young people who grow up attending religious services, praying or meditating daily do appear to have some important health advantages, according to a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health investigation published in September 2018. The researchers reported that young people who engaged in spiritual or religious rituals as children and teenagers were more likely to have better physical and mental health as young adults compared to their non-ritualistic peers. These aren’t surprising findings. The investigators noted that earlier studies have shown that religious adults tend to have better health and well-being, including a lower risk of premature death.
Specifically, the new investigation showed that young people who participated in spiritual practices as children and teenagers were less likely to have depressive symptoms, smoke or use illicit drugs than those who did not have spiritual practices. The researchers also found that young people who prayed or meditated daily while growing up were 16 percent more likely to report being happier as young adults.
The study revealed that they also were 30 percent less likely to have begun having sex at a young age, and 40 percent less likely to have had a sexually transmitted infection. Those who attended religious services weekly were 33 percent less likely to use illicit drugs and 29 percent more likely to volunteer in their communities than their peers who did not engage in religious or spiritual practices while growing up.
The researchers reached these conclusions after analyzing health data from mothers participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II, as well as information from their children taking part in the Growing Up Today Study. All told, the team followed more than 5,000 youths for eight to 14 years. In an effort to isolate the effect of a religious upbringing, they controlled for variables such as maternal health, socioeconomic status and history of substance abuse or depressive symptoms.
These findings might not apply across the board, the researchers noted, because the young people participating were mostly children of white women whose family socioeconomic status was relatively high. However, prior research by senior author Tyler VanderWeele suggested that the effects of attending religious services may be even more significant for black versus white populations.
Previous studies in adults found that attending religious services is associated with better health and well-being than solitary prayer or meditation. The new findings showed that it didn’t matter whether the young people attended services or engaged in private spiritual practices. Either choice yielded similar benefits.
The results of other studies examining the association between having an active social life and general health are compelling, and likely apply here. I have written elsewhere on this site about the many benefits of meditation, including enhancement of immune function, lowering of blood pressure and relief of chronic pain. I’m not surprised that young people in the study who meditated daily were healthier and happier than those who didn’t.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Ying Chen and Tyler J. VanderWeele, “Associations of Religious Upbringing with Subsequent Health and Well-Being From Adolescence to Young Adulthood: An Outcome-Wide Analysis.” American Journal of Epidemiology, September 10, 2018, doi.org/10.1093/aje/kwy142