• Text smaller
  • Text bigger

A study that appears to have received virtually no attention since its appearance online last year suggests the stress of being Catholic or a “born-again” Protestant takes a toll by causing a quicker atrophy of one part of the brain.

But it also says that those without religious affiliation are hit hard, too.

The study called “Religious Factors and Hippocampal Atrophy in Late Life” was published online by the Public Library of Science last year. Since then, it’s been mentioned by blogs and medical sites but generally has not reached into mainstream reporting.

“The findings of this study indicate that hippocampal atrophy in late life may be uniquely influenced by certain types of religious factors,” write the authors, led by Amy D. Owen of the Center for the Study of Aging at Duke University. Several of her colleagues joined in the report.

The review noted that there have been few studies regarding the relationship between religious factors and structural neuroanatomy, “despite a growing interest in the ways spiritual beliefs and practices are reflected in brain activity.”

Among the reasons for interest are the links between the size of the hippocampal region of the brain and clinical outcomes including depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was observed for participants reporting a life-changing religious experience,” the study’s abstract said. “Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also observed from baseline to final assessment among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again. These associations were not explained by psychosocial or demographic factors, or baseline cerebral volume.”

At the Scientific American, Andrew Newberg commented on the idea that stress produced by various circumstances of religion would be a cause of atrophy.

“This is an interesting hypothesis. Many studies have shown positive effects of religion and spirituality on mental health, but there are also plenty of examples of negative impacts. There is evidence that members of religious groups who are persecuted or in the minority might have markedly greater stress and anxiety as they try to navigate their own society,” he wrote.

Calling the assessment “intriguing and important,” he wrote, “It makes us think more about the complexity of the relationship between religion and the brain. … For now, we can be certain that religion affects the brain – we just are not certain how.”

In an article for Miller-McCune magazine, Tom Jacobs suggested, “If Owen and her team are right, the stress of being a nonconformist takes its toll on our neural system, and taking action to stay calm and centered is the brainy way to respond.”

The study examined high-resolution MRI data on a sample of 268 older adults to also provided information about their faith or lack thereof.

“Rates of atrophy for the hippocampus have been found to accelerate during late life,” the study said. “Research indicates that hippocampal volumes may be affected by exposure to elevated glucocorticoids, particularly cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, and that cumulative cortisol exposure may lead to hippocampal atrophy.”

How does that link to religion?

“This study examined prospective relationships between religious factors and hippocampal volume change using high-resolution MRI data of a sample of 268 older adults. Religious factors assessed included life-changing religious experiences, spiritual practices, and religious group membership,” the report said.

The analysis of the results noted that among Americans, 92 percent report a belief in God or a universal spirit, 83 percent belong to a religious group and 59 percent report that they pray at least daily.

But studies on the connections between the religious or spiritual and the structural neuroanatomy have been few.

“The current study [examines] relationships between a broad range of religious factors and hippocampal volumes.”

The report said those with the most atrophy were identified as born-again Protestants, Catholics or those with no religious affiliation, who also have claimed they are discriminated against in a society founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs.

“Greater hippocampal atrophy was also predicted by reports at baseline of having had life-changing religious experiences. These longitudinal associations were not explained by baseline psychosocial or psychiatric factors (social support, stress, and depression status), demographic factors, duration in the study, or total baseline cerebral volume,” the report said.

It said “the cumulative stress framework [is] a plausible interpretation of these results.”

It noted that there were some limitations, based on the launch date of the study in 1994 and the limited technology available then.

“This study is among the first to examine religious and spiritual correlates of structural neuroanatomy, identifying several understudied factors associated with hippocampal atrophy,” said the analysis. “Religious factors, including religious group membership and life-changing religious experiences, but not frequency of public and private religious practices, were longitudinally associated with hippocampal atrophy.

“Atrophy in this region has important clinical implications, having been identified as a marker of late life mental health problems such as depression and dementia. These results may reflect an impact of cumulative stress on hippocampal volume.”

That Christians face stress is no surprise.

Newberg cited “persecution,” and a survey done for WND last year showed that 49.2 percent consider the legal activism against Christians and their beliefs regarding homosexuality in the United States to be “persecution.”

And that “persecution,” according to just about one in three Democrats, is “necessary.”

The results came from a scientific poll by Wenzel Strategies.

The analysis of the the atrophy study said: “One way of interpreting these findings is within the context of the hypothesized impact of cumulative stress on the hippocampus. While some religious variables have been found to be associated with positive mental health, other religious factors may be a source of stress. Research indicates that relationships between stress and hippocampal volume likely operate at the level of cumulative rather than acute stress, leaving the cumulative stress framework a plausible interpretation of these results.”

Owen was joined in the work by R. David Hayward of Duke’s Department of Psychiatry, Harold G. Koenig of the Duke Medical Department, David C. Steffens of the Duke Department of Psychiatry and Martha E. Payne of Duke’s Neuropsychiatric Imaging Research Laboratory.

Owen’s biography explains “her primary focus of research has been on foregiveness: as a therapeutic intervention for various populations, the impact of forgiveness on those who forgive, and the concept and process of forgiveness in different cultures.”

Her biography said Owen is “studying the role of forgiveness (of self, another person, and perceived forgiveness from God) in the physical health of people living with HIV-AIDS.”

An online presentation in which she participated dealt with “Forgiveness and immune functioning in people living with HIV/AIDS.”

She also has worked on projects on the “Longitudinal Relationships of Religion with Post-treatment Depression Severity in Older Psychiatric Patients: Evidence of Direct and Indirect Effects.”

In a tongue-twisting conclusion, the atrophy study said, “Subjective religiousness was directly related to worse initial [Montgomery-Asberg Depression Rating Scale], but indirectly related to better post-treatment MADRS via the pathway of more private prayer. Worship attendance was directly related to better initial MADRS, and indirectly related to better post-treatment MADRS via pathways of lower stress, more social support, and more private prayer. Private prayer was directly related to better post-treatment MADRS. Religious media use was related to more private prayer, but had no direct relationship with MADRS.”

Another published paper dealt with “Future Plans of Urban Youth: Influences, Perceived Barriers, and Coping.”

Interviewed for that project were nine adolescents in the 11th and 12th grades from two large, urban public schools in the Midwest.

An online page for agnostics cited the study regarding atrophy and said, “Cue the sanctimoniously outraged religionists who will scream and holler and stamp their feet at the results of this study. They’re sure to vilify its authors, and they likely will attempt to get them fired from Duke. They will, no doubt, condemn the ‘atheist fundamentalists’ who cooked up this study in order to discredit religion, because they’re all wicked ‘secular progressives’ who want to destroy the country’s ‘moral fabric.’

“There’s just one problem with any such claim, if it’s made (and I’m betting it will be): It’s not true! The Duke University institute that produced it, the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, was founded for the purpose of granting scientific (specifically, medical) credibility to religion. The last thing its staff want to do is come up with a study that even remotely appears to discredit religion!”

  • Text smaller
  • Text bigger
Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.