People who attend religious services a couple of times a week may live longer, a new study suggests. Harvard University researchers analyzed data from the Nurses’ Health Study, a survey of 74,534 healthy, primarily Christian women. At the start of the study in 1992, participants were all asked how often they went to church; the researchers then tracked them for 20 years. By 2012, 13,537 of the women had died. After adjusting for other risk factors, it turned out that the ones who attended services more than once a week were 33 percent less likely to have died of any cause than those who never went at all.
The second study analyzed 1,096 obituaries published online in 42 major cities across the U.S. between August 2010 and August 2011.
In both studies, the researchers accounted for sex and marital status, as well as the number of religious social activities the people had participated in.
The first study showed that religious believers lived 9.45 years longer than those who did not have a religious affiliation in their obituary.
After their sex and marital status had been accounted for, believers lived 6.48 years longer, on average, than non-believers.
In the second study, that gap was 5.64 years at first, then 3.82 years after considering sex and marital status.
As aforementioned, studies have highlighted the importance of social activities for longevity. Thus, Wallace and team wanted to verify that the longevity boost was not explained by the social and volunteer activities that the people had participated in.
“We found that volunteerism and involvement in social organizations only accounted for a little less than 1 year of the longevity boost that religious affiliation provided,” notes Wallace. “There’s still a lot of the benefit of religious affiliation that this can’t explain.”
The researchers speculate on potential reasons why religion gives a longevity boost. Baldwin Way, a co-author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State University, says that religious believers may refrain from unhealthful practices such as drug and alcohol use.
Moreover, “many religions promote stress-reducing practices that may improve health, such as gratitude, prayer, or meditation,” the researcher adds.
While these are just hypotheses, one thing that the study did show with a fair degree of certainty was that conformity mediates the relationship between religion and longevity — that is, in cities where conformity was important, believers lived longer than non-believers.
As a former missionary for Youth for Christ, I can personally attest to the powerful impact our spiritual life has on wellness and positive outlook on life in general.