Women who attended religious services regularly lived 20 percent longer than those who did not, a recent study found.
The research, published in the journal Psychology and Health, examined cardiovascular disease and mortality rates in relation to the religious involvement of the study’s participants. Of the 92,395 post-menopausal women who voluntarily participated over an average of 7.7 years each, those who indicated the highest church attendance and the most “comfort from religion,” though they lived much longer, showed no difference in heart disease rates from those for whom religion was less important.
The study’s authors concluded, however, that while religious participation did not reduce fatalities from heart disease, overall it did decrease the risk of death: “Although self-report measures of religiosity were not associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease morbidity and mortality, these measures were associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality.”1 Thus, the researchers were surprised to discover that those who were the most religiously involved live longer by 20 percent! They initially suspected that the mechanism of “comfort from religion” led to reduced stress and thus lowered heart disease, resulting in increased longevity, but that assumption proved to be false. Now, the researchers must return to the drawing board and look for other possible causes.
Lead author Eliezer Schnall said in a Yeshiva University press release, “The protection against mortality provided by religion cannot be entirely explained by expected factors that include enhanced social support of friends or family, lifestyle choices and reduced smoking and alcohol consumption. There is something here that we don’t quite understand.”2
The study did not specify the denominational affiliations of the participants, and despite the causal link between religion and longer life that some headlines suggest, one co-author admitted, “We do not infer causation.”2 Co-author Sylvia Wassertheil-Smoller also said, “The next step is to figure out how the effect of religiosity is translated into biological mechanisms that affect rates of survival.”2
The “biological mechanisms” involved may be unclear, but Scripture gives some specific connections between physical wellbeing and religious belief and practice. For example, Exodus 20:12 states, “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” Perhaps those in the study for whom religion was significant lived longer in part because of their adherence to this commandment. There are also several scriptural references to the principle that fearing God and keeping His commands leads to long life, such as Deuteronomy 6:2.
And Proverbs 17:22 states, “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine: but a broken spirit drieth the bones.” Physiologists have demonstrated that laughing causes healing endorphins to be released within the body. Possible connections between religious beliefs and the prevalence of mirth could use further investigation.
This new study offers an intriguing glimpse into the Bible’s assertions that spiritual principles and biblical practices (with “church attendance” as a corollary, probably non-causal, lifestyle) can translate into longer life.
- Schnall, E. et al. 2008. The relationship between religion and cardiovascular outcomes and all-cause mortality in the women's health initiative observational study. Psychology & Health. Published online prior to print November 17, 2008, accessed November 21, 2008.
- Yeshiva and Einstein Study Suggests Attending Religious Services Sharply Cuts Risk of Death. Yeshiva University press release, November 26, 2008.
* Mr. Thomas is Science Writer.
Article posted on December 2, 2008.