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Health trajectories of individuals who quit active religious attendance: analysis of four prospective cohort studies in the United States.

PURPOSE: To examine whether trajectories of health (depressive symptoms, psychological wellbeing, self-rated health, and body mass index) and health behaviors (smoking, heavy alcohol consumption, physical inactivity, and cannabis use) changed for individuals who first reported at least monthly religious attendance and then in subsequent study waves reported no active religious attendance.

METHODS: Data were from four cohort studies from the United States collected between 1996 and 2018: National Longitudinal Survey of 1997 (NLSY1997); National Longitudinal Survey of Young Adults (NLSY-YA); Transition to Adulthood Supplement of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID-TA); and Health and Retirement Study (HRS) with a total n = 6592 individuals and 37,743 person-observations.

RESULTS: None of the 10-year trajectories of health or health behaviors changed for the worse after the change from active to inactive religious attendance. Instead, the adverse trends were observed already during the time of active religious attendance.

CONCLUSION: These results suggest that religious disengagement is a correlate-not a cause-of a life course characterized by poorer health and health behaviors. The religious decline caused by people leaving their religion is unlikely to influence population health.

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