Monday, April 03, 2006

Churchgoers Live Longer

I've sat through a few sermons where I thought my life was in suspended animation, but that's not what this article from Yahoo News implied.

There are many things you can do to increase your life expectancy: exercise, eat well, take your medication and ... go to church.

A new study finds people who attend religious services weekly live longer. Specifically, the research looked at how many years are added to life expectancy based on:

  • Regular physical exercise: 3.0-to-5.1 years

  • Proven therapeutic regimens: 2.1-to-3.7 years

  • Regular religious attendance: 1.8-to-3.1 years
[…] "Religious attendance is not a mode of medical therapy," said study leader Daniel Hall, a resident in general surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "While this study was not intended for use in clinical decision making, these findings tell us that there is something to examine further."

Hall is also an Episcopal priest.

"The significance of this finding may prove to be controversial," he said. "But at the very least, it shows that further research into the associations between religion and health might have implications for medical practice."

In a telephone interview, Hall speculated that the social aspect of religion could play a role in the results: "There is something about being knit into the type of community that religious communities embody that has a way of mediating a positive health effect," he told LiveScience. Perhaps, he said, being involved in a religion "can then decrease your level of stress in life or increase your ability to cope with stress."

Another possibility: "Being in a religious community helps you make meaning out of your life," Hall suggested.

Being an Episcopal priest explains why he seems to make it all the way through the interview without once mentioning that “God” person.

Hall also looked at the cost of these three approaches, examining typical gym membership fees, therapy costs from health insurance companies and census data on average household contributions to religious institutions. The estimated cost of each year of additional life apparently gained by each method:
  • Regular physical exercise: $4,000

  • Proven therapeutic regimens: $10,000

  • Regular religious attendance: $7,000

I’d love to know how that cost is calculated. Assuming it is averaged over the life of the patient, it seems like a whole lot less than a tithe.

Hall cautions that few conclusions can be drawn from his study, and that further research is needed. "There is no evidence that changing religious attendance causes a change in health outcomes," he said.

But he said doctors and researchers might want to think of religiousness as a demographic factor.

"For example," he writes in the journal, "the incidence of gastric cancer is higher among Japanese men, and knowledge of this fact might guide a physician to initiate early and frequent screening for gastric cancer among male Japanese patients."

Religiousness as a demographic factor. Guess it ranks right up there with smoking, drinking, and unprotected sex. Sigh…