Researchers from the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands studied the impact of various social activities on depressive symptoms in older European people. They found that participation in religious organisations was associated with a decline in depressive symptoms, while being part of a political or community organisation—such as a local branch of a political party—had a detrimental effect on mental health. Membership of sports and social clubs had short-term benefits, but did not lead to a decline in depressive symptoms in the longer term.
The study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, followed 9,000 Europeans, aged 50 and above, over a four-year period. Mauricio Avendano, an epidemiologist at the LSE and the study’s lead author, said that religious activity, such as going to a church, mosque or synagogue regularly, was the only reliable predictor of sustained mental welfare among the factors studied. “The church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness in later life,” said Avendano in a statement accompanying the study. However, he added that the study did not prove how much of the benefit was down to religious factors—faith in a higher being, for example—and how much was due to the sense of belonging which comes with being part of a group.