Is Religion Good for Your Brain?

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If you live in Georgia, you’re more likely to have a healthy brain than if you live in Minnesota. That’s according to an annual state-by-state ranking released this week by a national health education campaign called Beautiful Minds.

While Georgians could use more “mental stimulation through reading and game playing,” their high level of religious activity elevated them to a No. 10 ranking. And while Minnesotans read more and are active in their communities, their low level of religious activities contributed to their No. 31 ranking.

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Why the emphasis on religion? Research has linked religious activity with everything from reduced stress to better memory retention.

Are there times when the two overlap, when fervent belief in science functions much like devout faith?
DCI

One recent study, published in December of 2013 in JAMA Psychiatry, found that people at risk of depression were much less vulnerable if they identified as religious: Brain MRIs revealed that religious participants had thicker brain cortices than those who weren’t as religious (those with a family history of depression often have a thinning of the cortices).

Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University and a professor of psychiatry, said the depression research will likely be hailed as a landmark study -- but he wasn’t surprised by the findings. He’s written books, including “The Healing Power of Faith," "Faith and Mental Health," about the health benefits of religion. Those benefits include lowered stress through prayer and meditation.

“One of the worst killers of brain cells is stress,” said Dr. Majid Fotuhi, founder and chief medical officer of NeurExpand and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School, as well as a consultant to the Beautiful Minds project. “Stress causes high levels of cortisol, and cortisol is toxic to the hippocampus. One way to reduce stress is through prayer. When you’re praying and in the zone you feel a peace of mind and tranquility.”

The social element of attending religious services has also been linked to healthy brains.