Field of Science

The religious hypochondriacs of Nairobi

In 2006, the African Population and Health Research Center began a 5-year study into the health of older people (50 years and up) living in two Nairobi 'informal settlements' (aka slums, as pictured). Among other things, they wanted to know how healthy the people living there felt.

So, one of  the questions they asked was simply this: "In general, how would you rate your health today?"

They found that non-Catholic Christians were the most likely to rate their health highly, and Muslims the least likely. The non-religious (only 5% of the sample) and Catholics were in the middle.

Across all religions, however, those who went to services the most often (more than once a week) were 28% less likely to say they were healthy. That's not too surprising. Laura Schnall found a similar phenomenon in the USA. The obvious inference is that sick people go to church/mosque, perhaps in hope of a cure, or of social support.

But here's the odd thing. They adjusted their data for a wide range of factors - marital status, age, education, tribal affiliation. Now religious service attendance was not important. Maybe people weren't going to church because they felt sicker - maybe it was simply that other demographic factors were linked to both ill health and church/mosque going.

They also adjusted for social support, like the number of close friends, how much they participated in social activities, and whether they got support from relatives. All of these were important in explaining how healthy people felt, but none interacted with religion.

Then, last of all, they took into account how sick people actually were. Whether they currently had a severe illness, whether their activities were limited or if they had been to a doctor or other medical advisor recently, or whether they had ever been diagnosed with a range of common chronic illnesses.

After adjusting for real illness, it turned out that regular church/mosque goers say that they are sicker. Think about what that means.

It means that for the same level of real health, for the same level of social support, the same level of education, wealth, etc, people who go to church more often are less likely to feel well.

That's not what's supposed to happen at all!

ResearchBlogging.orgKodzi, I., Obeng Gyimah, S., Emina, J., & Chika Ezeh, A. (2010). Religious Involvement, Social Engagement, and Subjective Health Status of Older Residents of Informal Neighborhoods of Nairobi Journal of Urban Health DOI: 10.1007/s11524-010-9482-0

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.


  1. sounds like addiction - you know it´s not good for you, and do it anyway
    (my problem is binge eating).
    Try to breathe deep/meditate on a nice mantra helps often for the moment, those unnice thoughts like "sin" make it all worse for a lomg time.
    I do hardly remember how religion was, because I stopped to believe at age 7 because of the effect described above. Fighting my family was not as bad as believing in sin.

  2. I have enjoyed your blogging. Next, I was raised protestant and educated as a pastor but didn't do that. I rather moved into clinical social work and came into dealing with the extreme ends of psychiatric and psychosocial dynamics (schiz/psychosis, domestic violence, mental health holds, etc.). This work exposed me to the extremes within facets of the church. I have come to a different set of conclusions, though. Fundamentally, I see large sub-groups in religion using psychosomatic dynamics to keep their numbers up. Because of my deep involvement, including monasticism, I have seen and dealt with decidedly sick churches/monastics and healthy sets of the same. So then, I see your blog rightly pointing at true general points of those numbers yet missing subsets which are dynamically different. I do want you to keep pointing out how sick religion is. I want, as well, the healthy subsets pointed out as well and questions of what makes the difference raised.

  3. That's a good poitn. I do overgeneralise wildly on this blog. As you say, all religions are different, and within any religion you'll also find a wind range of different behaviours/ attitudes. Same goes for the non-religious, too, of course. In addition to that, any one scientific study applies to the time, place, and people that were studied. You generalise beyond that at your peril!

    So, why do I generalise so much? Well, first of all I don;t do it all the time - there are peanty of posts looking at differences between and within religions.

    But I do also think that there is, broadly speaking, something that can be called religion, and that all (or most) religious people have attitudes that tend to differentiate them from the non-religious. So I spend a lot of time trying to figure that one out, which inevitably means a lot of extrapolation...

  4. Alternative hypothesis: openly religious people are more likely to malinger.

    Is there any way to control for the covariance of accuracy and style of self-report with social factors that are associated with religion? What if something about the culture of the religious folks (or the non-religious folks) in this study affects how they talk about how they feel to other people, as opposed to affecting how they actually feel?

    Not a real criticism, just a thought. How could one rule this out?

  5. Interesting study, but the question for Darwin would be: is this a bad thing or a good thing? There is a lot of press in the US claiming that all of these ‘feel good’ programs in public schools to build self esteem result in less job-worthy graduates. Feeling too good about yourself may not be adaptive.

  6. I thought I recall having heard of a connection between neurosis and religious observance. Something like people who were more neurotic were more religious (a general trend in the same way that risk-taking is associated with social and political liberalism).

    Either way I would expect that the two traits, hypochondria & religiosity, are symptoms of the same root, rather than cause and effect.

  7. Interesting point. It could be that fear of death takes people along to church, and that that may help to keep them healthier - although they continue to believe that they are less healthy!


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