New longitudinal study links low religiosity to increased risk of Parkinson’s disease

According to a study published in the Journal of Religion and Health, low religiosity in adulthood is associated with an increased risk for developing Parkinson’s disease, among both England and United States populations.

Numerous cross-sectional studies have found an association between Parkinson’s disease and low religiosity, engagement in religious practices, and measures of self-transcendence, compared to age-matched control groups. Interestingly, individuals with Parkinson’s disease are more likely to report having spiritual beliefs. The past three decades has seen a rapid increase in the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease, and this trend is expected to continue with the aging population around the world.

“Given that the prevalence of Parkinson’s disease is increasing most rapidly among societies with a high proportion of religiously unaffiliated individuals [], and social science research has projected that religiosity will continue to decline in some parts of the world —it is clearly of high importance from a public health perspective, to clarify the temporal relationship between low religiosity and the development of Parkinson’s disease ,” writes study author Abidemi I. Otaiku.

This study used data from the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) and Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS), which spanned 2010-2019 and 1995-2014, respectively. To be included in the current research, participants must have been free of Parkinson’s disease at baseline, and had responded to questions relating to religion (e.g., How important is religion in your [daily] life?; How important was religion in your home when you were growing up?) and spirituality (e.g., How important is spirituality in your life?).

Participants also indicated frequency of attending religious/spiritual services, and engagement in prayer and meditation. As well, participants could not have missing data for sociodemographic metrics, and must have participated in at least the first follow-up after the baseline data collection. A total of 7,124 participants from ELSA and 2,672 from MIDUS were included in the analyses, for a total of 9,796 participants.

During the 10-year-follow-up period, participants were asked whether they had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease by a medical professional; this provided the metric for incident Parkinson’s disease. Covariates, which were measured at baseline, included age, ethnicity (i.e., white/non-white), marital status, education, smoking status, frequency of alcohol consumption, presence of diabetes, hypertension, mental health disorders (e.g., depression, schizophrenia), cognitive impairment (e.g., dementia), self-rated overall health, and physical activity levels.

Otaiku found that lower religiosity at baseline “was associated with a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s disease even when restricting the analysis to participants who professed a religious affiliation.” Religious individuals who reported that religion was not at all important in their lives had more than ten times the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease compared to religious individuals who reported religion was very important. When looking at the trend of the entire sample (i.e., religious and non-religious), the author found a similar result.

In the ELSA sample, this link remained even when excluding participants with incident Parkinson’s disease diagnosed within the first two years of follow-up, as well as those who reported cognitive impairment or severe mental disorders at baseline.

Participants who reported spirituality (but not religion) as very important, and those who deemed neither very important, were at greater risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, compared to those who reported religion as very important. This was also the case for participants who experienced a decline in their level of religiosity compared to those who reported no change.

A limitation the author notes is that “the findings from this study might not be generalizable to predominantly non-Christian populations.”

Otaiku concludes, “If replicated by other researchers, these findings could prove important in understanding global trends in the incidence of [Parkinson’s disease].”

The study, “Religiosity and Risk of Parkinson’s Disease in England and the USA”, was authored by Abidemi I. Otaiku.

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