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Religion Improves Health

Religion Might Add Years to Your Life

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Updated April 15, 2014

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The impact of religion on health and life expectancy has always been a tricky area of research. It seems (to some) that religious people (defined here as people who go to religious services regularly) seem to do better than those who do not go. This has led to a line of research looking into the impact of religion on health to determine what, if any, positive benefit religion could have on life expectancy. This research is tricky because of several factors:
  • people who attend religious services may simply be healthier than those that cannot attend
  • the benefits may have more to do with social contact than religion itself
  • certain religions may encourage behaviors that are healthy
As researchers look into the impact of religion, all these factors must be considered along with the possibility that religion itself influences health or that (to put it bluntly) God takes care of those who go to services.

Could 95,000 Women Be Wrong?

A study using data from the Women's Health Initiative found that women aged 50 and up were 20% less likely to die in any given year if they attended religious services weekly (15% reduction if they attended less than weekly) compared to those that never attend religious services. This analysis was controlled for age, ethnicity, income level and (most importantly) current health status. The data was collected through surveys and an annual review of medical records. What was interesting was that the religion effect applied to overall risk of death, but not to risk of death from heart conditions. There is no explanation for why that might be. The fact that the study controlled for overall health status makes it more possible that attending religious services has a positive impact on health (not just that healthier people go to services more often).

Add 2 to 3 Years with Religion

Another study also found benefit to attending religion services, this time expressed in added years of life. Researchers have found that weekly attendance at religious services is associated with 2 to 3 additional years of life. These findings were controlled for other factors such as amount of physical exercise and taking cholesterol medications.

How Good Are 2 to 3 Additional Years?

Pretty good. Exercise will increase life expectancy by 3 to 5 years, and taking statin-type cholesterol-lowering drugs will increase life expectancy by 2.5 to 3.5 years.

What Is the Cost?

The second study also examined the costs of physical exercise, statin-type drugs and religious attendance. Physical exercise typically costs $2,000 to $6,000 per year (for gym memberships, equipment, etc.), Statin-type drugs cost between $4,000 and $14,000 per year, and religious attendance costs between $2,000 and $14,000 dollars per year (donations and contributions). This makes physical exercise the most cost-efficient way to add years to your life, followed by weekly religious attendance and statin-type drugs.

Problems With the Studies

Because these studies are observational studies (studies that simply watch what happens in the real world without actively controlling any of the conditions or randomizing the participants), it cannot be said that religious attendance increases life expectancy or that it doesn't. We can only conclude that there is an association between religious attendance and increased life expectancy. They are linked, but we don't know why.

There could be a different reason to explain the life expectancy outcome in the study. In fact, other studies have shown that people who regularly attend religious services may be more likely to be employed, to have larger social networks, to be more positive, to live in intact families and to not be experiencing disabling illness. Any of these factors could explain the difference in life expectancy observed in this study.

What Can I Take Away From This?

The observation is real -- people who attend religious services regularly tend to live longer. The tough question is, why? It may be simply that people who attend religious services tend to have more social and financial resources than non-attendees, or it could be that something about attending religious services (like making connections with others, prayer, or spiritual reflection) helps people to live longer. You'll have to decide for yourself.

Sources:

Daniel E. Hall, MD, MDiv. Religious Attendance: More Cost-Effective Than Lipitor? The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine 19:103-109 (2006).

Eliezer Schnall; Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller; Charles Swencionis; Vance Zemon; Lesley Tinker; Mary Jo O'Sullivan; Linda Van Horn; Mimi Goodwin. The relationship between religion and cardiovascular outcomes and all-cause mortality in the women's health initiative observational study. Psychology and Health. 17 November 2008

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