The late Dr. Cyril Clarke was a renowned British physician, geneticist and professor of medicine. After 1984, with the explosive increase in the number of people living beyond 100, he began to take a great interest in human longevity.

He wondered whether extended lifespans were related to the decline of religious faith and belief in the afterlife. Perhaps, he considered, loss of faith motivated people to live longer in this life.

On the other hand, many centenarians are deeply religious. So what do we find when we look at the facts? Keep reading. . .

In the US, Lynn Adler, founder of the National Centenarian Awareness Project, interviewed 500 people who made it to 100 or beyond. Almost all of them said their faith sustained them.

Does this mean religious faith shortens life, as Dr. Clarke speculated, or does it extend it? A group of researchers decided to investigate.

Stronger Social Networks and Longer Lifespan

A team from the Department of Psychology at Ohio State University analyzed 1,096 newspaper obituaries drawn from 42 states, and 505 obituaries from the Des Moines Register, an Iowa daily morning newspaper.

Data from the national newspapers found that the deceased who were described as religious lived an extra 5.64 years, on average. Correcting these results to take women’s longer average lifespan into account, and whether the deceased were married – known to have an overall positive influence on life expectancy – religious people still lived 3.82 years longer.

The equivalent figures for Des Moines were greater — an astonishing 9.45 extra years for the religious, readjusted to almost 6½ years after gender and marital status were accounted for. Atheism must be really hard on your health in Iowa!

Baldwin Way, associate professor of psychology, and co-author of the report, was pretty much convinced by the results: “The study provides persuasive evidence that there is a relationship between religious participation and how long a person lives.”

It’s known that people who are religious are more likely to be engaged in the kind of social activities that help heal the negative health consequences of loneliness and a sedentary lifestyle.

Yet when both local and national data were combined, volunteering and social opportunities were found to account for just a small percentage of the added years of life.

According to Laura Wallace, a graduate student in psychology who led the study, “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.”

So what does explain it?

Non-Religious Can Live Just as Long

Professor Way believes this may relate to religious teachings. These discourage or forbid negative health practices such as promiscuity, alcohol and drug use, and promote positive health activities such as prayer, gratitude and meditation.

It’s not all bad news for the non-religious, however. There is a way to gain the same lifespan advantage enjoyed by those with faith.

This is possible because each geographical location has a certain “personality” and degree of religiousness, with its own norms and community values. The non-religious can benefit from this in certain circumstances. Wallace explains how:

“The positive health effects of religion spill over to the non-religious in some specific situations. The spillover effect only occurs in highly religious cities that aren’t too concerned about everyone conforming to the same norms. In those areas, non-religious people tend to live as long as do religious people.”

So it seems Dr Clarke was mistaken. People aren’t determined to live as long as possible because they have lost faith in an afterlife. This study suggests religious faith provides the kind of structure and values that promote a healthier, longer life.

More study of this subject is needed. Obituaries may not provide enough data to draw conclusions about a person’s life. A confounding factor may be that people who have had a hard life may be more likely to lose faith, or to never have been educated in faith by their parents in the first place.