Health: Does Being Religious Make You Live Longer?

People with religious affiliations may live four years longer on average compared to atheists, researchers from Ohio State University, who conducted a nationwide study of obituaries, revealed.

The paper titled “Does Religion Stave Off the Grave? Religious Affiliation in One’s Obituary and Longevity” was published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science on June 13.

“The study provides persuasive evidence that there is a relationship between religious participation and how long a person lives,” said co-author Baldwin Way, an associate professor of psychology at the university.

The research team conducted one small and one large study of obituaries. They noted the age, gender, religious affiliation, marital status, and the number of social and volunteer activities listed.

The first study analyzed 505 obituaries published in the Des Moines Register. An analysis revealed people who listed a religious affiliation lived 9.45 years longer on average than those who did not. After gender and marital status were factored in, the number reduced to 6.48 years.

The second study examined 1,096 obituaries from 42 major cities in the United States, obtained from newspaper websites. This time around, people with a religious affiliation lived 5.64 years on average. The number reduced to 3.82 years after gender and marital status were considered.

“Religious affiliation had nearly as strong an effect on longevity as gender does, which is a matter of years of life,” said lead author Laura Wallace, a doctoral student in psychology at the university. 

One reason for this effect may be attributed to increased opportunities to build social networks and join volunteer organizations, as suggested by previous research. For example, attending church regularly would increase the odds of becoming friends with other attendees and being in the loop of community activities.

But Wallace believed social involvement may only be part of the reason since the data accounted for a little less than one year in boosting longevity. 

“There’s still a lot of the benefit of religious affiliation that this can’t explain,” she said.

The researchers suggested certain lifestyle restrictions imposed by religions may also play a role. Alcohol and drug use is commonly discouraged among religious people, as is having sex with multiple partners. Professor Way also noted how some religions encourage practices such as gratitude, prayer or meditation which can help in reducing stress.

When the researchers broke down data by city, they observed another interesting trend. In highly religious cities where it was important for everyone to conform to values and norms, religious people lived longer than their counterparts. But in cities that were not too concerned about making everyone conform, non-religious people lived as long as religious people did.

While the study had the advantage of not using self-reported data when determining religious affiliation, it also had limitations such as lacking the inclusion of factors like race and health behaviors. These findings also need to be replicated in further studies.

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