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According to collected statistics, about 85% of the world’s people identify with a religion (Source).
Curiously, new research suggests that people in the remaining “non-religious” 15% may be at higher risk of developing Parkinson’s.
In today’s post, we will review the new research and try to understand this strange association.
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Before we start, I think that it is only fair to state that while I fully respect the rights of others to believe and practice what they want in terms of philosophical/religious beliefs (as long as it does not harm), I am an apatheist.
Pray tell, what is an apatheist? Is that like an atheist?
The apatheist position holds that the existence or non-existence of God(s) is utterly irrelevant. We are apathetic towards the question of “God”.
It is not a stance based on skepticism (like atheists or agnostics), but rather a lack of interest in the subject matter itself. Basically, the big picture question does not warrant any time or effort in the life of an apatheist. We simply do not care.
(I say “we”, but I am not a card-carrying member of any formal group, it is simply the designation that I can define myself by when folks come knocking on my door)
And for the record, my daughter is a practicing Christian, and I support her in her faith.
Ok, very nice, thanks for sharing, but…uh,… what does this have to do with Parkinson’s?
Actually, new research suggests quite a lot.
What do you mean?
Very recently, this research report was published:
Title: Religiosity and Risk of Parkinson’s Disease in England and the USA.
Author: Otaiku AI.
Journal: J Relig Health. 2022 Jun 28. Online ahead of print.
PMID: 35763200 (This report is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
In this study, the researcher (singular) collected data from two large longitudinal studies (the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) and the Midlife in the United States study (MIDUS)). The participants in those studies were free from Parkinson’s at the start/baseline timepoint (2004–2011), and as part of the studies they completed questionnaires on self-reported religiosity – basically how religious they felt and what religious beliefs they associated with.
Among 9,796 participants in the pooled dataset, there were 7,124 participants in ELSA study and 2,672 participants in MIDUS study. The participants were mostly of a Caucasian background (ELSA: 97.2%; MIDUS: 93.1%), and generally reported a Christian religious affiliation (ELSA: 81.0%; MIDUS: 81.8%). In general, there were lower levels of religiosity in the English cohort (ELSA) than in the US cohort (MIDUS) – 17% of the ELSA cohort considered religion very important in their lives, compared with 41% in the MIDUS group.
During an average follow-up period of 8.1 years, 74 (0.8%) of the participants in both cohorts were diagnosed with idiopathic Parkinson’s (52 cases in ELSA, 22 cases in MIDUS). And when the researchers compared the data collected from these individuals with all of the other participants in both studies, they noticed something rather intriguing:
People who reported religion was not at all important in their lives had a tenfold risk of developing Parkinson’s.
That is to say, when the researchers looked at the survey results from baseline (before people were diagnosed with PD) and subdivided the PD cases between “Religion is very important”, “Religion is somewhat important”, “Religion is not very important”, and “Religion is not at all important”, they found that most (47 of the 74 or 63%) had said that religion was not very important:
And the odds ratios (which are measures of association, rather than risk or causation) fro this result was 9.99 (with a 95% confidence interval of 3.28–30.36). An odds ratio of 1.0 indicates that the odds of a situation are the same between group. 9.99 is indicative of a serious association!
And the data indicated that there was a statistically significant “dose–response” relationship between decreasing religiosity and increasing Parkinson’s risk (P < 0.001 for trend).
Remarkably, these associations were similar even when the researchers adjusting for religious upbringing.
Wow. So…ah, it’s better not to be an apatheist then,… right?
Mmmm, yeah,… I guess…
Has this association ever been reported before?
To be fair, there hasn’t been a longitudinal study like this on religiosity in Parkinson’s to compare to.
And the previous data looking at religiosity in people already diagnosed with Parkinson’s (and it is not a broad field of research) has had mixed results. For example, this study found no difference between Parkinson’s participants and two control groups:
Title: Religious and spiritual beliefs in outpatients suffering from Parkinson Disease.
Authors: Giaquinto S, Bruti L, Dall’Armi V, Palma E, Spiridigliozzi C.
Journal: Int J Geriatr Psychiatry. 2011 Sep;26(9):916-22.
In this study, the research compared religiosity in 83 people already diagnosed with Parkinson’s with 79 hypertensive individuals (but not affected by PD) and 88 healthy controls in a cross-sectional study. Almost all PD participants (99%) reported that they had “beliefs”. The majority (66%) of them followed a “religious approach”, 19% had philosophical beliefs, and 13% had spiritual beliefs. And this matched up well with the controls, who were almost all (99%) “believers” – the “religious approach” was very frequent (82%), 10% had philosophical beliefs, and 7% had spiritual beliefs.
Another study found that the severity of Parkinson’s was associated with reduced spirituality, but not with Christian faith (Click here to read more about this).
But again, both of these small studies involved people already diagnosed with Parkinson’s. The larger longitudinal survey study demonstrates a very strong association between lack of religiosity before Parkinson’s and high risk of developing the condition.
Is there any biological explanation for how this association exists?
There has been some research exploring the biology of ‘religiosity’ and it has uncovered some intriguing results. For example, this study found that in a group of depressed inpatients, higher religiosity was associated with a significant increase in levels of the brain neurotrophic factor BDNF (between admission to discharge one month later):
Title: Increased Levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor Are Associated With High Intrinsic Religiosity Among Depressed Inpatients.
Authors: Mosqueiro BP, Fleck MP, da Rocha NS.
Journal: Front Psychiatry. 2019 Sep 13;10:671.
PMID: 31572245 (This report is OPEN ACCESS if you would like to read it)
The researchers looked at levels of the brain neurotrophic factor BDNF in the blood of 101 depressed inpatients. They divided them into 2 groups based on their response to a survey: high intrinsic religiosity and low intrinsic religiosity. And curiously the high intrinsic religiosity group had much higher levels of BDNF at discharge than the low intrinsic religiosity group, despite displaying little difference at admission.
What exactly is BDNF?
Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (or BDNF) is one of many survival supporting molecules that our bodies produce. It is a type of neurotrophic factor, which are small proteins that nurture neurons and support their growth. BDNF is particularly important in the brain, where it has been shown to enhance the survival of dopaminergic neurons in animal models of Parkinson’s. And it is interesting to note that BDNF levels are significantly reduced in individuals diagnosed with Parkinson’s (Click here to read more about this).
Thus, it is plausible that different levels of religiosity could stimulate the production of beneficial molecules – like BDNF – resulting to a protective effect.
An alternative theory could center on apathy.
What do you mean?
A very common feature of Parkinson’s is an increase in levels of apathy – a lack of interest or enthusiasm for aspects of life (Click here to read a useful review on the diagnosis and treatment of apathy in PD).
The lack of interest in religiosity could be symptomatic of an increase in apathy very early in the Parkinson’s process (the researcher in the new study does not explore apathy in their discussion).
So,… do priests have a reduced risk of Parkinson’s?
Unfortunately, multiple studies have demonstrated that clergy and religious workers -who are presumably have very high levels of religiosity – actually have a higher risk of developing Parkinson’s compared to other members of the general population (Click here, here, and here to read examples of research supporting this finding).
Wait. What?!? How does the researcher explain that???
Quote: ““The most parsimonious explanation for this observation would be that the increased risk for PD is confined to individuals with a religious occupation who subsequently experience a decline in religiosity”.
Right. So what does it all mean?
Large longitudinal epidemiological studies have been very useful in our understanding of the human experience and the medical afflictions that befall us. Such projects have shown that environmental factors like coffee and smoking reduce the risk of developing Parkinson’s (Click here to read an old SoPD post on this topic), while something as curious as religiosity may be associated with an increased risk of the condition.
The results of this new analysis on religiosity and Parkinson’s are very curious, but before we rush out and convert, I’d like to see some independent replication with some of the other large longitudinal studies. If the pattern is maintained across those datasets, then yeah ok I’ll be joining my local gospel group.
Actually, gospel music is wonderful stuff. I might go looking for some of it this weekend just for the joy of it.
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If I have any philosophy in life it would be wabi-sabi (侘寂).
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi sabi is a world view centered on appreciating the beauty of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness.
Wabi sabi embraces the transience of our existence, without the need for formal practice or worship. It is simply appreciation that any of this ‘life’ stuff is actually happening at all.
And that really should make everyone smile.
Autumn – very wabi sabi. Source: Shelburnemuseum
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One thought on “Finding religion”
I agree with you that one should wait for some independent replication of these findings.
Moreover, I assume that the (single) author of this article is the same one who wrote the following statement
in 2014. If this is so, and if his beliefs have not changed since then, the author could be described as a deeply convinced Christian. In this case, I believe the author has not complied with the journal publisher’s policy on disclosure of competing interests. On the one hand, the author declares in his paper:
“Conflict of interest: The author has no relevant financial or non-financial interests to disclose.”
On the other hand, the publisher’s policy
“Non-financial interests: In addition, authors are requested to disclose interests that go beyond financial interests that could impart bias on the work submitted for publication such as professional interests, personal relationships or personal beliefs (amongst others).”
In my opinion, a deep religious “personal belief” indeed “could impart bias on the work submitted for publication”, if this work is to show “that low religiosity in adulthood may be associated with an increased risk for developing PD”. This is because, in general, there are many different statistical methods (good, not so good, and bad ones, depending on the situation) one might want to use to analyse the given data, and an author with such a competing interest might tend to select statistical methods that lead to conclusions which support his or her personal beliefs, while another researcher who is less biased might consider these statistical methods as not applicable in this particular case.