Religion and Health in Nairobi

From Tom Rees of Epiphenom:

In 2006, the African Population and Health Research Center began a five-year study into the health of older people (50 years and up) living in two Nairobi “informal settlements” (aka slums, as pictured). Among other things, they wanted to know how healthy the people living there felt. So, one of the questions they asked was simply this: “In general, how would you rate your health today?”

They found that non-Catholic Christians were the most likely to rate their health highly, and Muslims the least likely. The nonreligious (only 5 percent of the sample) and Catholics were in the middle.

Across all religions, however, those who went to services the most often (more than once a week) were 28 percent less likely to say they were healthy. That’s not too surprising. Laura Schnall found a similar phenomenon in the United States. The obvious inference is that sick people go to church/mosque, perhaps in hope of a cure, or of social support.

But here’s the odd thing. They adjusted their data for a wide range of factors—marital status, age, education, tribal affiliation. Now, religious service attendance was not important. Maybe people weren’t going to church because they felt sicker—maybe it was simply that other demographic factors were linked to both ill health and church/mosque going.

They also adjusted for social support—like the number of close friends, how much they participated in social activities, and whether they got support from relatives. All of these were important in explaining how healthy people felt, but none interacted with religion.

Then, last of all, they took into account how sick people actually were—whether they currently had a severe illness, whether their activities were limited or if they had been to a doctor or other medical adviser recently, or whether they had ever been diagnosed with a range of common chronic illnesses. After adjusting for real illness, it turned out that regular church/mosque goers say that they are sicker. Think about what that means.

It means that for the same level of real health, for the same level of social support, the same level of education, wealth, etc., people who go to church more often are less likely to feel well. That’s not what’s supposed to happen at all!

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