Study shows lower death rate among churchgoers CARROLL COUNTY HEALTH

January 12, 1993|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Staff Writer

Elsie Cornwell never thought about living longer and enjoying better health as a possible side benefit of active membership in Calvary United Methodist Church of Gamber.

But at age 88, her only major physical problem is that she can't do as much as she once did. And when the roads are icy, she leaves her car in the garage instead of venturing out to church.

Longevity isn't what church means to Helen Allen of Eldersburg. But at 93, she gets a front pew seat each week at St. Joseph's Catholic Church on Liberty Road.

Dan McIsaac's only visible rewards for saying "yes" to the priest who asked him to become a Eucharistic minister at Holy Family Catholic Church in Randallstown have been personal satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment. But six years later, at 74, he enjoys good health.

No one claims that going to church or synagogue regularly will guarantee a long and healthy life. But a recent Connecticut study of 400 low-income senior citizens found lower death rates and less heart disease among those who regularly attended religious services than among those who did not.

Mrs. Cornwell has been involved in her church since 1938, doing "everything that came along," she said, including baking 30 to 40 dozen rolls for the annual church picnic. She still attends church regularly, but misses her past involvement.

Mrs. Allen, who lives with Robert and Helen Pepperney of Eldersburg, was unable to conduct a telephone interview because of a hearing impairment. But she said through Mr. Pepperney that attending church gives her a chance to "commune with God in a peaceful setting, get his blessing and [be] thankful to him for my health and longevity."

Mr. Pepperney credits religious faith with helping keep him and his wife alive. Mrs. Pepperney was seriously ill when she was younger and three times received the Catholic Church's last rites. Mr. Pepperney had cancer eight years ago, but said he's OK now.

"So I guess you can blame religion for helping us," he said.

Mr. McIsaac of Randallstown belongs to the Liberty Lake Golden Age Club in Eldersburg. As a Eucharistic minister, he distributes communion to hospital patients and nursing home residents.

"It's a lot of personal satisfaction," he said of his tasks. "After you've been to a nursing home, you have a feeling that you've accomplished something and you hope you've helped."

The social component of church is important, said Estella Spurrier, 69, of Finksburg. "I think it's as much the fact that you get out of the house and involved with other people [as the service]," she said.

Mrs. Spurrier is a Lutheran, but attends Calvary Methodist Church. "It's only one God," she said. "I can worship in any church."

Nursing home residents who have been involved in religion still like to attend weekly services, say local activities directors at the homes.

"When we had a snowstorm and the church wasn't able to come out [to the nursing home], the residents told me the first thing Monday morning," said Brenda Stansbury, activities director of Golden Age Guest Home near Winfield. "They said they did understand, but they missed church on Sunday."

Golden Age has four local churches that rotate for services at the home: Deer Park United Methodist, Mount Airy Mennonite, St. John's Catholic and Clearfield Bible.

The Rev. David Duley, pastor of Clearfield Bible Church, said the nursing home residents "appreciate any kind of visit, whether it's religious or not, but they especially like the religious services because we involve them."

Choir members and a pianist accompany the pastor to nursing home services, and members of the group often linger afterward to talk to the residents. "We try to make it as special as possible," Rev. Duley said.

Long View Nursing Home in Manchester has a similar arrangement with the North Carroll Ministerial Association. The Rev. Ira B. Barr Jr., president of the association and pastor of Bixler's United Methodist Church, said residents very much appreciate the services.

Mr. Barr said his approach is to stick with the familiar. "We always sing the same hymns, the ones they know by heart," he said.

He also includes the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles Creed, "things they would have memorized when they were children."

A nursing home service "is not the place for innovation. It's the place for reassurance," he said.

In the Connecticut study, scientists from the Yale University School of Medicine and Radcliffe College found that after two years, mortality rates were twice as high among those who didn't attend churchg as among those who regularly attended church or synagogue. Heart disease also was more prevalent among those who were not involved in religion.

Religious involvement doesn't promise longer, healthier lives, the study's authors warned.

They said their work suggests that while religious involvement doesn't protect against illness, it may help keep some illnesses from being fatal.

They cautioned that the study, conducted among low-income elderly people, may not apply to wealthier senior citizens.

They also found that older people who rated themselves as happy were less likely to die from a serious illness.

And, they found no connection between health and whether the elderly participants in the study had living children.

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