LSU Professor Investigating Connections Between Religious Attendance, Health in Older Mexican Americans

November 27, 2023

BATON ROUGE – With support from a $30,000 grant from the Louisville Institute, LSU Professor of Sociology Sam Stroope, along with collaborators Rhiannon Kroeger and Samantha Ramey, are researching the effects of aging on religious involvement among Mexican Americans. In a newly published article in the Journal of Aging and Health, the researchers show an earlier decline in religious service attendance in older Mexican Americans compared to white Americans. Their research also links this drop to an earlier onset of disabilities and smoking.

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“Religious affiliation is declining in the United States and participation in religious congregations is also gradually declining,” said Stroope, who studies the intersection of religion and health. “At the same time, there’s decades of research suggesting that religious participation tends to benefit health and well-being, including how long people live.”

Stroope said the lack of research on older Hispanic Americans’ religious practices is noteworthy, as Hispanic Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic minority group among older adults.

“By about 2060, the U.S. Census Bureau projects that about one-third of older Americans will be non-white, with Hispanics being the fastest-growing group,” Stroope said. “There is also a Hispanic paradox in health—Hispanic Americans have similar or longer life spans compared to whites, but lower levels of socio-economic resources and earlier onset of many health problems. They’re often living longer but sicker lives.”

Mid-life is generally characterized by relative stability in religiosity while a sizeable minority experience an uptick in religiosity in their fifties and sixties. Attendance at religious congregations then tends to increase after age 65 to decline again a decade or so later, often due to health challenges.

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Mexican Americans, however, Stroope said, experience both health declines and decreasing church attendance earlier than white Americans—in their mid-to-late seventies rather than their early-to-mid eighties.

“In our study, functional disability—things like difficulty getting around without help—was always the most important factor related to declines in religious service attendance,” Stroope said. “Additionally, of the 13 different health aspects we measured, smoking was always the second-most important health factor in decreased religious attendance in older Mexican Americans,” Stroope said.

This may be because smoking negatively affects health, which in turn makes religious attendance more difficult. Also, since smokers tend to have ties to other smokers, it may be that smokers lose social ties, and thus reasons to go to church, more quickly.

Considering their research findings, which show strong connections between smoking and declines in religious attendance, Stroope suggests religious bodies could do more to prevent smoking and promote health.

“This way, their members could enjoy better quality of life and continue to participate in old age,” Stroope said.