A recent study published in the June issue of JAMA Internal Medicine indicates that women who attend religious services regularly may live longer than those who don’t. In the study, four Harvard University researchers analyzed data collected from questionnaires given to 75,534 women over 16 years, between 1996 and 2012, documenting 13 537 deaths.
The results were conclusive. Attending services more than one time per week brought a 33 percent lower risk of premature death. More prayer created a greater effect. Attending less than once a week brought a 13 percent lower risk of premature death, and communal prayer twice a week brought a 26 percent lower risk of premature death.
“After multivariable adjustment for major lifestyle factors, risk factors, and attendance at religious services in 1992, attending a religious service more than once per week was associated with 33% lower all-cause mortality compared with women who had never attended religious services,” the study concluded.
Another benefit the study discovered was that those who attended services were less likely to suffer from depression, were more optimistic, and less likely to smoke.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the study was a suggestion it made to medical practitioners.
“Frequent attendance at religious services was associated with significantly lower risk of all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality among women. Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate.”
Of the 75,534 women who submitted to the survey, the majority were Christian and 1,700 were Jewish. The women answered questionnaires about their diet, lifestyle, and health every two years, and about their religious service attendance every four years.
“Because of the [comparably] small number it would be difficult to look at them separately and see if the results differ [for Jews],” the study’s senior author, Tyler VanderWeele, an epidemiology professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told JTA.
VanderWeele cited a study published in Springer in 2007, which examined this same phenomenon among 1,811 Jewish Israelis over the age of 70. The study, “suggested Synagogue attendance is seen to promote survival mainly through its function as a source of communal attachment and, perhaps, as a reflection of spirituality as well.” It also saw a positive effect from secular communal attachment, suggesting the benefit was, “because they are based on choice in nature, and reflect a sense of personal control”
“This suggests that there is something powerful about the communal religious experience,” said VanderWeele to the New York Times. “These are systems of thought and practice shaped over millennia, and they are powerful.”
The study statistically ruled out the possibility of reverse causation. The results were not due to healthy people attending prayer service more than unhealthy people. Some variables, including social support and a tendency not to smoke, contributed to the correlation between religious service attendance and longevity, but didn’t account for it.