NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is Religion Good For Your Health?

October 8, 1999

Recent studies suggest that religion is good for your health: men and women who practice any of the mainstream faiths have above-average longevity, fewer strokes, less heart disease, less clinical depression, better immune-system function, lower blood pressure and fewer anxiety attacks, and they are much less likely to commit suicide than the general population.

Most studies use attendence at religious services as a proxy for faith.

  • A survey in Demography of 21,000 Americans concluded that those who never attend church exhibit 50 percent higher risks of mortality than the most frequent attendees.
  • Harold Koenig of Duke University Medical Center reviewed some 1,100 health-effects studies involving religious practice and found that most show statistically significant relationships between worship-service attendance and improved health.
  • Koenig says, compared to practicing any mainstream faith, "[l]ack of religious involvement has an effect on mortality equivalent to 40 years of smoking one pack of cigarettes per day."
  • University of Texas researchers found that those who regularly attended worship services lived an average of seven years longer than those who never attended.

For some nonmainstream denominations, the story is different -- Christian Scientists and members of the Faith Assembly, who may shun medical care, have poor mortality and longevity rates.

Why would practicing a faith improve your longevity and well-being?

As New Republic points out, "every mainstream Western denomination encourages the flock to drink in moderation, shun drugs, stop smoking, live circumspectly, practice monogamy, get married, and stay married." Opposite behaviors are known risk factors.

However, statisticians caution that correlation never proves causation. And while a variance of 50 percent seems large, epidemiologists normally require a difference of 200-300 percent before concluding they have evidence of cause and effect.

Source: Statistical Assessment Service, "Religion - Opiate or Antitoxin?" Vital Stats, August 1999. Gregg Easterbrook, "Faith Healers," New Republic, July 19 & 26, 1999.

 

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