A blessed life: Religious people live longer than secular individuals, study finds

Study shows that just living in a highly religious city can add years to your life

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Churchgoing is on the decline, but lapsed congregants may find new reason to attend services. Why, you may ask? Because religious affiliation can increase lifespan by a handful of years, even when gender and marital status are taken into consideration, a new study finds.

Researchers at Ohio State University recently conducted an analysis of over 1,600 obituaries across two related studies, hoping to find whether religiosity helped promote longevity. It did, with the average congregant living four extra years.

Candle burning in church
Churchgoing may be on the decline, but lapsed congregants have new reason to attend services. That’s because religious affiliation can increase lifespan by a handful of years, new research shows.

The researchers’ first study looked at 505 obituaries published in the Des Moines Register in early 2012, noting the age, gender, religious affiliation, marital status, and volunteer history of the recently-deceased. A data analysis showed that the pious among this group lived nearly nine-and-a-half years longer than their non-religious neighbors — or six-and-a-half after their gender and marital status had been accounted for.

The second study examined this issue from a broader angle, looking at nearly 1,100 obituaries published across 42 major cities in the U.S. over a yearlong period. An analysis of this dataset showed a gain of nearly six years among those whose religiosity had been mentioned in the paper, or almost four years after gender and marital status had been taken into account.

“Religious affiliation had nearly as strong an effect on longevity as gender does, which is a matter of years of life,” notes Laura Wallace, the study’s lead author, in a statement.

Perhaps explaining the variation in lifespan between the two studies, more religious cities and states promoted longer lifespans — both for the religious and the religionless.

“The positive health effects of religion spill over to the non-religious in some specific situations,” Wallace explains. “The spillover effect only occurs in highly religious cities that aren’t too concerned about everyone conforming to the same norms. In those areas, non-religious people tend to live as long as do religious people.”

This begs the question of whether faith itself is behind all of these differences in lifespan. Sure enough, lifestyle factors, such as abstinence — both with regards to sex and alcohol — along with prosocial behaviors, such as volunteering, were found partly responsible for the gains.

Still, these factors only explained some of the gains found. Volunteerism, for example, was found to contribute less than a year to lifespan.

All in all, the variables measured only tell part of the story, meaning further research is needed. Future studies could also incorporate other relevant variables, such as health and racial background.

Wallace et al. published their findings on July 2, 2018 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.