1 July 1999

The Lord Smiles on Church Attendees

It's good for the soul, and it's good for what ails ya. Attending religious services more than once a week raises the possibility of extending life by at least seven years, and adds a remarkable potential 14 more years to the lifespan of African Americans, according to a recent study in "Demography."

Tracking a national sample of more than 21,000 U.S. adults, the study examined numerous social, economic and health and lifestyle factors, as well religious attendance, to see who was most likely to avoid death by any cause during the nine-year study period.

Religious attendance surfaced as a strong predictor for living longer, even when other relevant factors were taken into account, discovered this study, funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

"For the overall population, the life expectancy gap between those who attend more than once a week and those who never attend is over seven years," reported Dr. Robert Hummer and colleagues at the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. "Among blacks, most strikingly, there is a nearly 14-year advantage for those who attend more than once a week compared with those who never attend," they noted.

But not might other factors, such as higher income or education, stronger social ties or better initial health or healthier lifestyles -- like avoiding cigarette smoking or excessive alcohol consumption -- explain the increased chance to live longer among those who were most actively religious? The researchers analyzed the effects of each to find out.

Regarding income and education, "we find little evidence that religious attendance is associated with (lowered) mortality only because of confounding by socioeconomic factors," the researchers stated. Stronger social ties and better health behaviors did explain some of the link with living longer among the highly religious, but "a strong religious attendance effect remains," they noted.

Even taking into account all other factors, "those who never attend exhibit 50 percent higher risks of mortality over the follow-up period than those who attend most frequently. Further, those who attend weekly or less than once a week display about a 20 percent higher risk of mortality than those who attend more than once a week," they commented.

Also, some causes of death appeared more frequently among non-attenders. "Those who never attend are about four times as likely to die from respiratory disease, diabetes, or infections diseases," the researchers found. Stronger social ties also helped reduce diabetes. Healthier lifestyle choices, such as nonsmoking, lowered risk of death from respiratory and circulatory diseases. But these factors did not fully account for the gap between very high and non-attenders in risk of death from these causes.

"Although religious attendance in this national study outweighed socioeconomic factors in helping to prevent earlier death, religious factors are often overlooked in studying health and mortality," commented Dr. David Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research.

"Religious involvement...has received far less attention in the mortality literature than socioeconomic status," noted these researchers. "Moreover, there is still a sense in much of the scientific community that religious effects are minor at best or are even irrelevant. Our findings help to dispel such a notion."