Religious children are healthier children, study shows

Research done by Assistant Professor of Economics Donka Mirtcheva shows that a child’s involvement with religion has a “positive association” with his or her physical and mental well-being. “It’s clear that both for overall health…and psychological health, children who are affiliated with religion are in better health than those who are not affiliated,” said Mirtcheva.

The research, completed as part of Mirtcheva’s dissertation work, examined how religious affiliation (and type of affiliation), importance of religion, and frequency of attending religious services correlates with the overall health and psychological health of children ages 6 to 19.

The professor used two publicly available datasets for her work: the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a nationally representative, longitudinal study of 7,800 American households that includes a wealth of sociological and economic data, and the Child Development Supplement, which includes information on the health and religiosity of children of PSID parents.

In terms of religious affiliation, Mirtcheva found that children in the 6-to-19 age group who have an affiliation with religion are six percentage points more likely to be in “excellent or very good” overall and psychological health than unaffiliated children.

Interestingly, when Mirtcheva looked at a subset of 12 to 15 year olds, she found those with religious affiliations are almost twice as likely to be in excellent or very good overall health, and nine percentage points more likely to be in excellent or very good psychological health, than children without religious affiliations. She suggested this could be related to the intense peer pressure and teenage angst 12 to 15 year olds face, adding, “Perhaps religious affiliation has a calming effect on children entering their teenage years.”

Mirtcheva said there is no statistically significant difference in terms of quality of health between children of different denominations, only between affiliated and non-affiliated. In other words, “There is no ‘best’ religion to be, in terms of a child’s health,” she said. “We can only conclude that there are benefits to being affiliated with religion.

Children for whom religion is “very important” are six percentage points more likely to be in excellent or very good overall and psychological health versus children for whom religion is “not important.” However, children ages 12 to 15 for whom religion is very important are 13 percentage points more likely to be in excellent or very good psychological health than those for whom religion is not important. “That’s quite a significant difference,” remarked Mirtcheva.

Attendance at religious services seems to have more of an effect on psychological than overall health. Children who attend services “weekly or more” are just 3 percentage points more likely to be in excellent or very good psychological health than those who never or seldom attend (a difference that increases to nine percentage points for children ages 12 to 15). However, church attendance had no effect on overall health status, as no statistically significant differences were found between churchgoers and non-churchgoers.

Mirtcheva will publish her results in a forthcoming paper, and said the findings could have public policy implications. For example, “A religion-friendly public policy, even without favoring any one religion, is likely to be positively associated with the population’s health status…and thereby reduce public expenditures on health care,” Mirtcheva wrote.

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