“Go to church and live longer.”
You expect to see that recommendation posted on a roadside sign in front of a small town Baptist church, and not as a summary of new research out of Harvard University. But a new study just published by those Cantibrigians in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates exactly that.
The research team found that women who went to religious services at least twice a week were one-third less likely to die over the 20-year study period, compared to women who never attended services. Is there a “halo effect” in place here, or might the reasons be more earth-bound?
"The association between religious participation and mortality probably has more to do with religious practice and specifically, communal practice, like attending religious services, than with religious belief," said study author Tyler VanderWeele.
"Something about the communal religious experience seems to be powerful for health," said VanderWeele, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.
The researchers determined that private or solitary worship didn't confer the same longevity. What you worshiped mattered less than that you worshiped regularly and in a group. The solitary Hindu on his prayer mat got less bang for his spiritual buck than the Wiccan in her circle or Quaker at his Meeting.
"These things may of course still be important and meaningful within the context of religious life, but they do not appear to affect health as strongly. The results from our study suggest that there may be something important about religious service attendance beyond solitary spirituality," he said.
So, all well and good for the church-goers, and more power to them, but does this mean that non-church-goers are doomed to be short-lived (And how can that be since we all have that one completely evil acquaintance that looks like he's going to live forever...)? VanderWeele demurred, noting that "with data of this sort one generally cannot definitively demonstrate a cause-effect relationship."
The study included information from almost 75,000 U.S. women. The original study began in 1976. The women were between 30 and 55 years old at that time. Information on lifestyle, health and religious practice was collected between 1992 and 2012, and the researchers adjusted the data to account for a number of factors. These included: diet, physical activity routines, drinking and smoking history, weight, depression, social life and race.
Women who went to a service at least once a week had a 27 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease. They also had a 21 percent lower risk of dying from cancer compared to those who didn't attend service at all, the study found.
Compared with non-attendees, once-weekly service goers saw their risk for dying drop by 26 percent, while those who went less frequently saw their risk drop by 13 percent, according to the study. Furthermore, women who regularly attended religious services had fewer depressive symptoms, and those who went to religious services more than once a week also lived an average of five months longer than women who never went to services.
Needless to say, the researchers stopped way short of recommending that everyone go to church or temple weekly, noting that "despite the findings, we cannot for certain say that religious belief/practice per se is the actual cause [of longevity]” in an editorial that accompanies the research by Dr. Dan German Blazer II, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. Blazer conceded, however, that the study “provides significantly more reason to believe that there is something about religious belief [and] practice among these women which contributes to protection against dying."