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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Religious people may have taken comfort from a number of studies over the past two decades showing those adhering to a faith tend to be healthier but a new study casts some doubt on this belief.
The study, published in the journal Circulation, suggests that when it comes to heart disease and clogged arteries, attending religious services or having spiritual experiences may not protect against heart attacks and strokes.
"There's not a lot of extra burden or extra protection afforded by this particular aspect of people's lives," concluded Dr. Donald Lloyd-Jones, of the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University, Chicago, who led the study.
In a review of data from nearly 5,500 people, Lloyd-Jones and his colleagues expected to see less risk for heart disease among those with more "religiosity."
The researchers defined religiosity as participation in religious activities, prayer or meditation, and spirituality, regardless of denomination. They did not report the religious faiths of study participants.
Over the course of four years, those in the study had 152 events related to heart disease or clogged arteries, including 9 deaths, 42 heart attacks, and 24 strokes.
That rate of such events -- less than one percent per year -- was lower than in the general population, which the team expected because they excluded people who were already diagnosed with heart disease and related conditions.
However, neither the rate of heart disease events, nor the number of certain risk factors -- such as high cholesterol, diabetes, and high blood pressure -- differed among those who were more or less religious or spiritual.
The researchers did note that those who went to religious services, prayed, meditated, or were highly spiritual were more likely to be obese, and less likely to smoke.
Given that many religions discourage smoking tobacco, the smoking finding was not difficult to explain, Lloyd-Jones said, but the reasons for the obesity finding were less clear.
"We're not sure whether it is that religious people are more likely to gain weight through activities they pursue, or maybe heavier people seek out religion as a result of stigmatization," said Lloyd-Jones.
Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a professor of psychiatry and medicine at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, said the obesity finding was not surprising, given that congregations and families often "fellowship" over meals.
Koenig, who has studied the potential connection between health and religion, was not involved in Lloyd-Jones' work. He said the research is well done but has a lot of limitations that make the meaning of the results unclear.
For example, he said the low rate of heart attacks and other events could be a weakness of the study, because at small numbers, the likelihood of an effect was harder to tease out.
Koenig also noted that half of the people studied were either African American or Hispanic, groups that, on average, have poorer access to health care than whites and Asian Americans.
African Americans, on average, are also some of the most religious people in the world, Koenig said.
"When you've got a population with this big a difference, struggling, and under stress, religion would have to overcome an enormous number of risk factors to have a significant effect," he said.
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith