Church-going women live longer, Harvard study shows

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BOSTON – Does attending church give you a longer life? A Harvard University study shows a significant proportion of women who went to services more than once a week lived longer than those who never attended religious services.

For the Nurses’ Health Study, researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health tracked nearly 75,000 female nurses over two decades from 1992 to 2012, looking at diet, lifestyle, and health status as well as religious service attendance.

Nurses who attended religious services more than once a week had a 33 percent lower risk of death over the course of the study compared with women who never attended religious services. The more religious also lived about five months longer overall, according to a summary of the findings.

“Our results suggest that there may be something important about religious service attendance beyond solitary spirituality,” Tyler VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology at the Boston-based school and senior author of the study, said Monday in a statement about the study.

“Part of the benefit seems to be that attending religious services increases social support, discourages smoking, decreases depression, and helps people develop a more optimistic or hopeful outlook on life,” he said.

The study went beyond earlier attempts to correlate religiosity and health by using a very large sample population measure over a long period of time and by controlling for factors such as health of participants and how it affects their ability to attend religious services, according to the statement from Harvard.

Women who attended services once a week had a 26 percent lower risk of death, while those attending less frequently had a 13 percent lower mortality risk, according to the statement from Harvard. The study, published Monday in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine, also showed that frequent church-goers also had significantly lower risks of dying from cardiovascular and cancer-related causes.

While the researchers adjusted for a variety of factors, including diet, physical activity, alcohol consumption, smoking status, body mass index, social integration, depression, race and ethnicity, there were still drawbacks that may limit its significance.

The research subjects, all female nurses from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, were mainly white Christians so may not reflect the general population of either the U.S. or other countries, or areas where religious freedom is limited. The study cites other research showing that about 43 percent of all Americans regularly attend religious services.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.