Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Sheila M. Elred writes in Discovery Magazine that a recent study has 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. 'One of the worst killers of brain cells is stress,' says Dr. Majid Fotuhi. '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 reports concluded that a thicker cortex associated with a high importance of religion or spirituality may confer resilience to the development of depressive illness in individuals at high familial risk for major depression. The social element of attending religious services has also been linked to healthy brains. 'There's something magical about socializing,' says Fotuhi. 'It releases endorphins in the brain. It's hard to know whether it's through religion or a gathering of friends, but it improves brain health in the long term.'" (Read more, below.)"Listening to sermons and reading religious works like the Bible may also invoke a cognitive benefit. "You're exercising your higher cortical function, thinking about complex concepts that require some imagination," says Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University and a professor of psychiatry. According to Koenig the benefits of devout religious practice, particularly involvement in a faith community and religious commitment, are that people cope better. "In general, they cope with stress better, they experience greater well-being because they have more hope, they're more optimistic, they experience less depression, less anxiety, and they commit suicide less often. They don't drink alcohol as much, they don't use drugs as much, they don't smoke cigarettes as much, and they have healthier lifestyles. They have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, probably better cardiovascular functioning, and probably a healthier hormonal environment physiologically—particularly with respect to cortisol and adrenaline And they live longer." So where does that leave non-believers? "Out of luck, I guess," Koenig jokes. "Actually, I would suspect that people doing the types of things like religious people do — socializing, doing similarly complex cognitive tasks, would have similar benefits. But it is interesting that religion provides that whole package of things that people can adopt and pursue over time." Dr Dan Blazer says the study is very interesting but is still exploratory and that spirituality may be a marker of something else, such as socioeconomic status. "It's hard to study these things," concludes Fotuhi . "It's why research has stayed away from them. But there does seem to be a strong link between spirituality and better brain health.""