Religious commitment linked to longer life

Regular involvement in religious activities goes hand in hand with better physical health and a longer life, according to a statistical analysis of 42 independent studies published since 1977 that have addressed this issue.

Lengthened lives of religious folk draw scientific interest. Adalberto Rios Lan/PhotoDisc

Scientists now need to examine the pressing matter of what causes the association between religious activity and mortality, asserts a team led by psychologist Michael E. McCullough of the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Md.

“This is a phenomenon that deserves a lot more research attention than it has traditionally received,” says McCullough.

Religious involvement may have an association with good health and long life for several reasons, he and his coworkers theorize. First, spiritual pursuits may attract people who shun risky behaviors, such as smoking and alcohol use, as well as discourage such behaviors. Second, religious activities may increase social contacts and marital stability. Third, positive attitudes and emotions may lead to both good physical health and regular religious involvement.

The researchers’ statistical analysis, published in the May Health Psychology, included data for a total of 125,826 participants. Investigations took place largely in North America among Christian and Jewish volunteers.

McCullough’s team focused in particular on the minority of studies in which self-reports distinguished between public and private religious involvement. The former includes attending services at a church or synagogue and devoting spare time to organized religious activities, whereas the latter centers on internal spiritual feelings and praying when alone.

Measures of overall death rates for participants drew on all officially recorded causes, including accidents and illnesses.

Religious involvement, especially the public type, showed a statistically significant relationship to higher survival rates, the scientists say. Other factors that displayed a comparable link to longer life included being relatively young, well educated, in good physical health, and part of a supportive social circle.

George A. Kaplan, a social epidemiologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, expresses skepticism about the new report. “There are only a handful of good studies on religion and physical health,” so mixing them with many inferior studies “doesn’t tell us much more than we know already,” he says.

“There is absolutely no basis for recommending religiosity as a preventive strategy [in health care],” Kaplan says.

He coauthored a 1997 investigation that was included in the statistical analysis by McCullough’s group. That project tracked deaths in a large sample of adults in northern California over 28 years. Volunteers who cited high levels of religious belief tended to live longer than those who didn’t. Religious participants also exhibited less depression associated with job loss and other stresses that were out of their direct control but showed more depression linked with marital and other relationship problems.

Researchers face daunting problems in assessing religiousness, Kaplan says. For instance, he points out, questionnaires or even brief interviews may not accurately reveal the depth of a person’s religious faith.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.