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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
The role of religion
The study, which is actually a review of existing research from the three categories, does not reveal what the link between faith and health might be.
"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.
The findings are detailed in the March-April issue of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine.
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
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." Likewise, the thinking goes, knowing a person's religious practices might prove useful in evaluating their condition and suggesting potential treatments.