When I was growing up, I was a kid. My friends were kids, too. As I kid when I thought about my kid friends, I viewed of us all as roughly social equals. Sure, one friend could run faster, and another was smarter, and another more good looking, but these differences were dwarfed by our common statuses. We were all children in families and students in school and watchers of the same several television shows the night before (a time before cable television). Somewhere in my young mind, I just assumed we would all grow up to be about the same. Fast forward several decades, and every class and family reunion brings new realizations of different social outcomes. One friend has been happily married with four kids, while another is on their third bad marriage. One has a steady, mostly-satisfying job, another has had endless temporary lousy jobs. A common starting point, but such different outcomes.
Now the same thing is happening with health.
In my thirties and forties, my peers all had pretty good health. Sure, there were occasional maladies, mostly overcome, but our base rate was functional and our outlook optimistic. Now, though, at 52, I am starting to see signs of health stratification. One friend goes on 100 mile bike rides, while another moves slowly with an awkward walk. One friend hasn’t seen a doctor in years, while another regularly posts pictures of himself in the hospital on social media. In twenty years, some portion will be dead or disabled.
As a sociologist, how do I respond to the unfolding demise of my friends? How else but to start wondering about why some people live longer than others. There are lots of factors, of course—genetic, dietary, health care, and simply luck—but one factor that’s often overlooked is religion.
It turns out that religious people live longer, a lot longer, than none religious people. One study followed 22,000 adults for eight years. Those who never attended religious services were 1.9 times more likely to die in the period than those who attended religious services once a week. Using statistical projections, the researchers calculated that if you have two twenty-year-olds, one attends church weekly during his life and the other never does, the church goer will live 7 years longer. Seven years! That’s a long time. (That’s almost as big an impact as not smoking, for cigarette smoking shaves 10 years off of life).
Another study summarized data from 42 different samples and found a robust association between religious involvement.
But, perhaps my favorite study on this issue just came out. An undergraduate at Ohio State University, for her honors thesis, looked at obituaries from 50 different areas of the country. She tallied up how long the person lived as well as if the obituary listed religious involvement. Sure enough, obituaries that mentioned a religious organization eulogized lives that were 8 years longer (83 years vs. 75 years for no church).
So, it’s clear that church involvement is linked to longer lives. The following, and more involved, question is why. It might be that people who would have lived longer anyway are drawn to religion. However, there is good reason to think that religious involvement itself adds years to life. Most religions lead people into healthier behaviors such as doing less drinking and drug use (though I’m not sure how snake handling fits in here). Religion connects people with other people, and social ties are great for living long. Religion gives people a sense of purpose, which itself is linked to longevity.
So, if you’re going to church each week, it’s probably adding years to your life. Just think, you’ll have more time with your grandchildren to look over the church bulletins that you collected over the years.
If you’re a church leader, you’re doing maybe as much good for the physical health of your congregants as a public health official. Add that to your resume!
In thinking about all this, and how it affects my life, I suppose that I should be extra nice to my friends at church because it looks like we’re going to be together for a while.
(Originally posted at brewright.com)