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Maybe the religious live longer because they don’t think they’re going to die

Maybe the religious live longer because they don’t think they’re going to die May 15, 2009

Here’s a speculative idea, prompted by an article in this week’s New Scientist on the noxious placebo (or nocebo) effect. That’s the term given to the very real health effects that come from thinking that you’re going to die.

The article kicks off with a great example of near-death by witch doctor, but here’s the bit that caught my eye:

The ultimate cause of the nocebo effect, however, is not neurochemistry but belief. According to Hahn, surgeons are often wary of operating on people who think they will die – because such patients often do. And the mere belief that one is susceptible to a heart attack is itself a risk factor. One study found that women who believed they are particularly prone to heart attack are nearly four times as likely to die from coronary conditions than other women with the same risk factors.

Now, I wonder if this can be related to another interesting conundrum: the fact that religious people have a longer life expectancy than non-religious. The effect is tiny, but it is detectable if you analyse a big enough group.

The evidence suggests that the effect is due to attending church, rather than religious beliefs per se, and that the effect may be due to increased happiness.

But here’s another fact: Religious people are less likely to think they are going to die, even when they are mortally ill. Maybe, just maybe, part of the health effects of religion come from a simple belief that you are not going to die (at least, not yet…).

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work by Tom Rees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.


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