Women who attended religious services more than once per week were 33 percent less likely to die during a 16-year follow-up than women who never attended, according to a study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Those who frequently attended religious services also had significantly lower risk both from cardiovascular- and cancer-related mortality, according to a press release on the study.
The study was published online this week in JAMA Internal Medicine.
So is God rewarding the religiously observant? Not necessarily.
"Our results suggest that there may be something important about religious service attendance beyond solitary spirituality," said Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School and senior author of the study. Going hand-and-hand with religious attendance comes an increase in social support, a sense of belonging to a community, and a decrease in depression, said VanderWeele.
Almost 40 percent of Americans report attending religious services at least once a week. This isn't the first study to link religious attendance to lower mortality. But this one attempts to address charges that studies linking worship with improved health may be flawed because of "reverse causation." This is the idea that only those who are physically well enough can actually attend services, so therefore attendance isn't necessarily influencing health.
The new study, according to the press release, addressed those criticisms by using "rigorous methodology that controlled for common causes of attendance and mortality, used a larger sample size, and had repeated measurements over time of both attendance and health," noted the release.
The data that was examined ranged from 1992 to 2012 and included responses from 74,534 women who participated in the Nurses' Health Study. The nurse-respondents answered questionnaires about their diet, lifestyle, and health every two years, and about their religious service attendance every four years. The researchers adjusted for diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking status, body mass index, social integration, depression, race and ethnicity.
One limitation of the study is that it consisted overwhelmingly of white Christians and therefore might not be applicable to the general population. The study population also included only U.S. nurses of a similar socioeconomic status, who tend to be fairly health conscious.
Compared with women who never attended religious services, women who attended services more than once per week had 33 percent lower mortality risk during the study period and lived an average of five months longer, the study found. Those who attended weekly had a 26 percent lower risk and those who attended less than once a week had 13 percent lower risk.
The study concludes that "Religion and spirituality may be an under-appreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate."