Take two prayers and call me in the morning: Churchgoers live longer, according to Dr. Daniel Hall, a University of Pittsburgh Medical Center physician who analyzed actuarial death rates and found that weekly worship service attendance could add up to three years to a person’s life.
“Our culture, particularly our medical culture, tends to have a strong secular bias. This data shows in ways that are unquestionable that there’s something going on in people’s beliefs and practices that makes them healthier,” Dr. Hall said yesterday. “To ignore this phenomenon would be foolish.”
Dr. Hall, a fourth-year surgical resident, is also an ordained Episcopal priest. He received both degrees from Yale University and is associated with the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh. For his research, he pored over age-specific, actuarial death rates derived from census statistics, comparing effects of regular exercise, cholesterol-lowering drugs and church attendance. All three have health benefits, he found. Exercise can add three to five additional years to life, statin therapy 2.5 to 3.5 years and church attendance two to three years.
“The real-world, practical significance of weekly religious attendance is of similar magnitude as these other widely recommended therapies of health behavior,” Dr. Hall wrote in his study, published yesterday in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.
He is cautious in proclaiming broader implications of his findings, saying, “We can’t manipulate churchgoing as if it were aspirin.”
“But there is something about being rooted in a religious community associated with mediating a positive health effect and a substantially longer life expectancy,” he added. “Though religious attendance is not a recognized mode of medical therapy, these findings warrant more investigation.”
Dr. Hall also examined the lifetime cost of exercise, statin drugs and churchgoing, based on census data relating to the cost of gym membership, pharmaceuticals and contributions to religious institutions. Church attendance proved more cost-effective than the drugs: Each year of life gained from statin therapy cost about $10,000, while religious attendance cost $7,000 per year.
Physical exercise was the cheapest, at approximately $4,000 per year.
Previous studies also support the link between longevity and religion. Among them, a 1997 study by Duke University Medical Center of 1,700 older adults found that religious observance enhanced immune systems and lowered blood pressure. Another Duke study two years later found that weekly churchgoers were 46 percent less likely to die over a six-year period than people who did not attend.
The effect was so strong that it was equal to that of not smoking cigarettes, Duke psychiatrist Dr. Harold Koenig said at the time. In addition, University of Colorado sociologists found that regular churchgoers live longer than those who don’t attend — by as much as seven years.