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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – A new study adds to mounting evidence that older people who regularly attend religious services are healthier than those who don’t.

Big Obstacles to Young People in Local ChurchAmong 1,174 highly functioning men and women in their 70s, those who went to a church, synagogue or mosque at least once a week had a significantly slower decline in their lung function over the following years than their peers who didn’t go to services regularly, Dr. Joanna Maselko, now at Temple University in Philadelphia, and her colleagues report.

Maselko, who conducted the study while at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, used peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR), which measures the volume of air a person is able to expel from the lungs, to gauge lung function in the study participants.

At the study’s outset, in 1988, 65 percent of female participants and 51 percent of men reported attending religious services regularly. Over the follow-up period, which averaged 4.6 years, PEFR declined twice as much in the people who didn’t attend church services regularly compared with those who did.

While the more religious individuals were more physically active and also less likely to smoke, these differences didn’t account for their better lung function.

People experience a steady decline in lung function as they age, and impaired lung function is a key early warning sign of many health problems, making pulmonary health and excellent gauge of overall health, Maselko told Reuters Health.

Religious service attendance likely protects people by giving them a supportive community, she added in an interview. “In the US, social isolation among the elderly is a huge problem,” she said. “That’s associated with all sorts of health problems, mental and physical.”

Religion can also offer older people a psychological resource for coping with end of life issues, she added, while meditating, praying and singing at religious services may have benefits in and of itself. “The next step in the research is to try to unpack these things.”

“I don’t think the take-home message is if you don’t go to church you should start,” she added. “It’s too early to really say this is what you should do, this is what you shouldn’t do.” Instead, she said, the findings provide additional evidence that “there’s something there.”