A Closer Look at Religion’s Role in Countering Depression

Depression is one of the most common mental health issues facing older adults, with around 20 percent of adults over 65 reporting being depressed. Additionally, researchers have suggested that older adults with major depression have double the risk of developing dementia compared with those who have never experienced major depression. This makes reducing depression among older adults a major psychological and public health concern.

One thing that research has indicated as a potential protective factor against depression is engagement in religious activity. A recent study examined whether the benefits of religion come from protecting against depression, whether religion is aiding in the recovery from depression, or both. In addition to this, the study also examined which aspects of religion may be having an impact on depression.

This study used data from two waves of the Health and Retirement Study, from 2006 and 2008. The average age of all participants in the study was 68. In order to examine whether religion protects against depression, the authors looked at the 5,740 participants who were not depressed in 2006 to see if religion impacted the likelihood that they would develop depression. In order to see whether religion aided in recovery from depression, the authors looked at the 1,992 study participants who were depressed at the start of the study. All participants were asked a variety of questions about religion in their lives, including their religious affiliation, amount of religious service attendance, importance of religion in their lives, and amount they prayed.

In terms of religion protecting against depression, the only religious factor that was associated with a lower likelihood of nondepressed individuals developing depression was attendance at religious services. However, this association proved to be complicated. Those individuals with the highest levels of religious attendance (once a week or more) had a 35 percent lower likelihood of being depressed two years later, compared to individuals with moderate levels of religious attendance (two to three times a month). The authors suggest that this may be due to the higher level of social interaction and social connectedness that religious service attendance may provide. More surprisingly, the study also found that individuals with low or no religious attendance (less than two times a month) had a 25 percent lower likelihood of depression as well, for reasons that remain unclear. The authors suggest that this finding may be related to the greater likelihood that individuals with low religious service attendance engage in private, non-organized religious or spiritual practices.

The non-religious factors that appeared to guard against depression were being in good or excellent health and having a high household income. Non-religious factors associated with a higher likelihood of depression two years later were being female, having a chronic condition, having an adverse social event such as divorce or loss of a spouse, having nearby relatives, being in fair or poor health, having other psychological issues, and living alone.

As for the role of religion in the recovery from depression, an analysis of the individuals who were depressed in 2006 showed that two religious variables played a significant role in their depression status two years later. Those depressed participants who were affiliated with the Jewish tradition were twice as likely to remain depressed, for reasons that are not yet clear. One possibility suggested by the authors was that this could be due to the adverse impact of being part of a minority religion, such as the negative experiences associated with anti-Semitism. On the other hand, at follow-up depressed individuals who engaged in private prayer more frequently were less likely to continue to be depressed. Other non-religious factors that were associated with a lower likelihood of remaining depressed two years later were being in excellent health, being widowed, having a higher household income, and living in a nursing home. The non-religious factors that were associated with remaining depressed two years later were having more adverse social events such as divorce or loss of a spouse, living close to relatives, having other psychological issues, and having dealt with a stroke, heart attack, and/or cancer. Again, the reasons for some of these associations (living close to relatives and widowhood in particular) remain unclear at this point.

This research highlights a number of policy and practice implications, such as the importance of ensuring transportation availability and access to places of worship. Furthermore, professionals working with older adults need to be aware of the benefits of religious service attendance and prayer, and to evaluate whether barriers exist for individuals achieving their desired levels of religious participation.



Ronneberg CR, Miller EA, Dugan E, et al. The protective effects of religiosity on depression: a 2-year prospective study. The Gerontologist. (2014). DOI: 10.1093/geront/gnu073

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