Study questions religion-depression link

NEW YORK Tue Feb 28, 2012 2:24pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Some research has suggested that religious people may have a buffer against major depression -- but new findings cast some doubt on that.

Researchers said people who develop depression might be more likely to stop going to services, which could explain why those who regularly go to religious services have lower rates of depression than the less-devout.

The new study found evidence of just that.

Among 2,100 Americans followed from birth to about middle-age, women who had developed depression early in life -- before age 18 -- were more likely than others to stop going to religious services by their early 20s.

Among men, there was no link between depression and churchgoing habits.

"This doesn't mean that the findings from past studies are all wrong," said lead researcher Joanna Maselko, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

But, she told Reuters Health, the findings among women may at least partly explain why religious-service attendance has been linked to lower odds of depression.

The results, reported in the American Journal of Epidemiology, are based on a group of Rhode Islanders who were followed from infancy until their late-30s to 40s.

Based on interviews and questionnaires completed over the years, 27 percent of study participants suffered from major depression at some point in their lives; nearly one-third of them developed symptoms before age 18.

Overall, women who'd developed such early depression were 42 percent more likely to stop going to religious services by their early 20s.

The large majority of study participants -- 90 percent -- had attended services as children. Of women who developed depression as kids, a little more than half stopped going to services by early adulthood.

As for men, Maselko said, "we didn't see any relationship."

Past studies on religiosity and depression have often surveyed people at only one time point, Maselko said. And that leaves the chicken-and-egg question.

In other cases, studies have followed people over time, but only beginning in middle-age -- which, Maselko said, is after the age when many people develop their first bout of depression.

"With this study, we were able to capture that phase of the life course," she said.

So why are researchers interested in whether your churchgoing has any relation to your depression risk?

"It's not like we would ever encourage or discourage religious service attendance" for that reason, Maselko said.

But, she added, religiosity is a large concept. And if there are "smaller components" of it that protect against depression -- religious people's coping skills, for instance -- it could be widely helpful to know that.

The current findings do not discount the possibility that people's religious lives can affect their mental health, Maselko and her colleagues say. But they do underscore the difficulty of ascribing a health benefit to religion.

"I think the jury is still out on religiosity and mental health," Maselko said.

SOURCE: bit.ly/AmDqcl American Journal of Epidemiology, online February 20, 2012.

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