People attend places of worship to praise their God, hear messages of hope and spiritually bond with others in their religious community. Yet engaging with religion delivers benefits way beyond the spiritual.
According to the latest science, believing in a loving, benevolent God also promotes a healthier, longer life. Here’s the story…
Studies show that the greater the attendance at religious services among different faiths, the greater the health benefits. Attendance at religious services is linked to lower blood pressure, a reduced incidence of physical disability, less depression, and lower rates of death from heart disease and from any other cause.
All these benefits were shown in studies dating from the last century. But since religions teach respect for one’s body, adherents are less likely to engage in harmful practices such as smoking, alcohol abuse and taking recreational drugs. By bonding with others, they are also less likely to suffer social isolation, which is a major risk factor for mortality.
Perhaps these explain the health advantages of a religious affiliation…or is there something unique about religious service attendance? In 1998, The Buck Center for Research in Aging in Novato, California, set up a study to find out.
Faith extends life by over seven years
The research team asked a local population of 2,023 affluent adults over the age of 55 how often they attend religious services, and then followed them over five years.
Even after factoring in demographic variables, health status, physical functioning, health habits, social activities, and psychological scores, the researchers wrote that “religious attendance provided a persistent protective effect against mortality.” They were unable to explain why this was so, but their results were consistent with earlier studies in different populations.
The following year the University of Texas led a trial that included more than 2,000 people who died between 1987 and 1995. As with the previous study, they factored in a very large number of variables that influence mortality.
Even so, the study demonstrated a “strong association.” Those who never attended services had an 87 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period when compared to those who attended more than once a week.
This translates to a 20-year-old who never attended living to age 75, but someone of the same age who regularly attended religious services living an extra 7.5 years to age 83. That’s a dramatic increase in lifespan!
One of the study authors, Rick Rogers, said the research established the importance of religious involvement and the lack thereof as a fundamental cause of mortality. Additional evidence comes from more recent studies.
Extends life by nearly a decade
In 2018, researchers from Ohio State University published a study entitled, “Does Religion Stave Off The Grave?”
To find out they trawled through newspaper obituaries looking for mention of religious affiliation. The first sample included 505 people from Des Moines, Iowa. The second sample included 1,096 people spread across 42 American cities.
After taking gender and marital status into account, both of which influence mortality, they found that in both populations those disclosing their religious affiliation lived 9.45 and 5.64 years longer, respectively than those who didn’t.
Lead author Laura Wallace explained, saying, “Religious affiliation had nearly as strong an effect on longevity as gender does, which is a matter of years of life. We found that volunteerism and involvement in social organizations only accounted for a little less than one year of the longevity boost that religious affiliation provided. There’s still a lot of the benefit of religious affiliation that this can’t explain.”
Senior author Baldwin Way added: “The study provides persuasive evidence that there is a relationship between religious participation and how long a person lives.”
As to why, he could only speculate that “many religions promote stress-reducing practices that may improve health.”
Three other studies found similar results, but the reason why has little to do with stress reduction.
Stress reduction can’t explain the effect
In a Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health study of 74,534 female nurses, the researchers adjusted the findings to consider just about every influence on health and mortality one can think of. And still they found attending a religious service more than once per week lowered death from any cause by 33 percent when compared with women who had never attended religious services.
Another study led by the University of Houston, looked at religious service attendance and mortality among older Black men. Participants attending the most frequently had a 47 percent reduction of all-cause mortality risk compared to those who never attended.
A UCLA study that included over 5,000 middle-aged adults found going to church more than once a week slashed the risk of death by 55 percent when compared to non-churchgoers.
Since a reduction in stress if often put forward to explain the lower mortality, the researchers measured the allostatic load – a physiologic measure of stress – but found this “only partially explained differences in mortality…These findings suggest a potential independent effect of church attendance on mortality.”
All these studies demonstrate that religious attendance lengthens life. But what is this unaccounted-for hidden factor? The answer to this question eludes scientists and other mortals. It resides only in the divine – at least for now.