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Faith and health

Religious Danes have lower mortality rates and fewer hospital admissions

A new study links active participation in a religious organization with several health benefits. 

By Marianne Lie Becker, , 8/28/2023

Women who are religiously active have lower mortality rates, and men have fewer hospital admissions. These are the key findings of a study conducted by Linda Juel Ahrenfeldt, Associate Professor at the Department of Public Health, University of Southern Denmark, along with her research colleagues.

In the study, which was published in one of the leading epidemiological journals, the "European Journal of Epidemiology," the researchers examined the relationship between participation in a religious organization such as a church, synagogue, or mosque, and mortality rates and hospital admissions among Danish men and women.

- It appears that religious activity is associated with lower mortality rates and better health. However, there seems to be a difference between genders. We have no obvious explanations for this, but perhaps men and women use religious organizations differently and in different phases of life, said Linda Juel Ahrenfeldt.

Lower mortality rates, especially for women

The researchers compared the religious activities of 2,987 interviewees with their later hospital admissions and mortality rates.

- In the period, where we followed the group, there were 848 deaths. We found that individuals who had participated in a religious organization had approximately 30% lower mortality rates. The pattern for women was even more significant, namely 44% lower.

Meet the researcher

Linda Juel Ahrenfeldt is associate professor at the Department of Public Health


Significant impact on health

Niels Christian Hvidt, who co-authored the study, is a professor at the Research Unit for General Practice at the University of Southern Denmark.

Through his years of research on the relationship between spirituality and health, he has found associations between spirituality and the risks of developing a wide range of diseases.

- It is very interesting that we see health-related associations with attending church, mosque, or similar places. Researchers from abroad have previously shown that people who practice a faith live longer and healthier lives. However, it is new knowledge that participation in a religious organization among adults in Denmark has such significant health implications, even in a secular culture like the Danish.

Difficult to explain the difference

Regarding hospital admissions among the nearly 3,000 participants in the study, the researchers found that men who had participated in a religious organization had one-third fewer admissions than the other men in the study.

No difference in the number of admissions was found for women. The difference between genders is not immediately explainable, but overall, the results indicate that being active in a religious community makes a positive difference.

- People who have faith may consider realizing this faith in a spiritual community, such as attending church or mosque. This is also recommended in an influential article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), among other things, referring to what participation in a spiritual community can mean for health.

Nearly 3,000 Danes followed in registries

Previous studies, like this one, have shown that when it comes to mortality, the effect of religious activity is greatest among women.

The previous studies published by the research group are based on self-reported health data from 10 European countries. In these studies, the researchers found that individuals who had participated in a religious organization within the last month had a lower risk of cancer and were less likely to report depressive symptoms. They also had fewer unhealthy habits that can lead to dangerous diseases, such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, inactivity, and sleep problems.

However, the difference between previous studies and this new one is that this study examines data from registries, which means that it looks at certain health factors that are not based on self-reporting that may be biased.

- My idea was that if religious individuals are generally more positive, it could potentially explain some of our previous findings based on self-reported data. Therefore, I decided to examine more objective health measures such as mortality and hospitalizations, where we have complete information from Danish registries. “Even with this type of health measure, we find the same overall clear positive effects on health," explains Linda Juel Ahrenfeldt.

Further studies can support the findings

The 2,987 participants in the study were followed in registries regarding hospital admissions and deaths until 2018. They had all been previously interviewed between 2004 and 2007, including questions about their religious activities, as part of a large European survey.

- With nearly 3,000 participants, this is a considerable study that we have conducted. Of course, it could always be larger, but what's interesting is that it becomes more challenging to find associations in studies of this size due to lower statistical power.

- Previous studies have suggested that the positive effect of religious participation is due, among other factors, to the beneficial influence of belonging to a community or having a healthier lifestyle. However, current studies have not been able to fully explain the health effects of religious participation through physiological, psychological, or social processes, says Linda Juel Ahrenfeldt, emphasizing that further evidence can only be provided through new studies.

Mød forskeren

Niels Christian Hvidt is a professor, Cand.Theol, and Theol.Dr. at the Research Unit of General Practice at Department of Public Health at SDU.


Om studiet:

  • The study is based on data from 2,987 Danes aged 40 and over who were interviewed in the large European survey "Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe (SHARE)" between 2004 and 2007.
  • The participants were then followed in the Danish registers until 2018 (on average 8½ years).
  • Link to the scientific articles here: 
Editing was completed: 28.08.2023