Study Finds Religious Activity Can Prevent, Curb Depression Among Older Adults

Office of Communications | August 15, 2014
Study Finds Religious Activity Can Prevent, Curb Depression Among Older Adults

Religiosity had a 'protective effect' against depression, researchers found.

Older adults who regularly engage in religious activity, such as prayer or attendance at services, are less likely to develop depression and more likely to recover if they’re already depressed, according to a new study from the University of Massachusetts Boston’s Gerontology Department, located in the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

Nearly 1 in 5 adults over 65 suffer from depression—a rate four times higher than the general population. The researchers analyzed the onset and progression of depressive symptoms among 7,732 older adults over two years—about a quarter of whom reported depression. Their findings were published in the journal The Gerontologist.

Religiosity had a “protective effect” against the disorder, researchers found. Respondents who were not depressed at the beginning of the survey period were less likely to develop symptoms if they had participated regularly in religious activities, and those who were suffering from depression were more likely to have recovered.

Lead researcher Corina Ronneberg said that while the effect was positive for both depressed and non-depressed elders, the mechanisms behind each change were likely different.

“Frequent service attendance is associated with more social connections, developed in and sustained by congregations. These connections can reduce isolation and loneliness, thus avoiding the onset of depression,” Ronneberg said. “For those who are already depressed, private prayer may serve to cultivate hope and activate cognitive resources that eventually counter the disorder.”

Ronneberg says family, friends, and community members can help older adults take advantage of this protective effect by offering to accompany them to religious services, providing transportation, or arranging home visits from clergy.

“Religion plays a prominent role in the lives of Americans, especially older adults,” Ronneberg said. “Family members should ask their loved ones if their religious needs are being met, and work with them to meet those goals.”

The study, titled “The Protective Effects of Religiosity on Depression,” was co-authored by UMass Boston professors Elizabeth Dugan, Edward Miller, and Frank Porell. Read the entire study here.

About UMass Boston
Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the University of Massachusetts Boston is deeply rooted in the city's history, yet poised to address the challenges of the future. Recognized for innovative research addressing complex issues, metropolitan Boston’s public university offers its diverse student population both an intimate learning environment and the rich experience of a great American city. UMass Boston’s 11 colleges and graduate schools serve more than 16,000 students while engaging local and global constituents through academic programs, research centers, and public service. To learn more, visit

Tags: gerontology , mccormack

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Comments (1)

Posted by Allison L. Nelson | September 03, 2014 - 12:44 p.m.

I disagree with the findings relating religious activities and depression if it includes associating attending a religious institution (such as church). I am unaware by how many of the diverse religions the findings were accounted for but I do believe that if they were only or mostly Protestant religions then studies may just be inconclusive to say the least. The church state and their congregations are so political that it can be very stressful upon several different members. Outside of the financial burden the churches put upon their congregations, the ideology of their principles have also been a contribution to the depression of the members. Along with the idea that everything is a sin, going to hell if one does not obey the church, is a factor in religion. Religion itself is only a collection of agreeing minds, who take the oath to follow the footsteps of those supposedly called to lead God’s people. Disobedience of the church and leadership has its consequences, and those suppressing any opinions over such are open to be subjected to depression at any level. We all want to grow in a good direction but as unique as we are, so are our needs for peace and prosperity. Because religions are so diverse, meaning, they apparently cannot come to total agreement about religious principles, how can we trust that what we are presented with is correct? Personally I bank on being spiritual and having a nurturing relationship with God, while dodging the constant judging from these institutions.