Religion and Your Health

Religion Might Add Years to Your Life

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 be healthier 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.

What the Studies Say

A study of more than 92,000 participants 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 the overall risk of death, but not to the 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).

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

The same study also examined the costs of physical exercise, statin-type drugs, and religious attendance. Physical exercise was the most cost-efficient way to add years to your life, followed by weekly religious attendance, and statin-type drugs.

Years of Life Expectancy

  • Religion: 2 to 3 additional years

  • Exercise: 3 to 5 additional years

  • Statin-type drugs: 2.5 to 3.5 additional years

Cost Per Year

  • Religion: $2,000 to $14,000 (donations and contributions)

  • Physical exercise: $2,000 to $6,000 (gym memberships, equipment, etc.)

  • Statin-type drugs: $4,000 to $14,000

Problems With the Research

Because these studies are observational (researchers 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 these studies.

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.

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