Peering into San Leandro's "Little Shul," the oldest standing synagogue building in California. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Peering into San Leandro's "Little Shul," the oldest standing synagogue building in California. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

Life expectancy in the U.S. is falling. Can religion help you live longer?

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First the bad news: In 2021, life expectancy in the U.S. dropped for the second year in a row, falling from 77.0 to 76.1 years, according to the CDC. Combined with a drop of 1.8 years in 2020, this has led to the biggest two-year decline in life expectancy since the early 1920s.

The life expectancy at birth for women in the U.S. is now 79.1, and for men it is 73.2. Further information can be found in a report from the National Center for Health Statistics of August 2022.

Now the good news.

If you have been a reader of this column, you are aware that there are many well-confirmed scientific studies showing that regular exercise, a prudent diet, sufficient sleep and avoiding harmful substances can lead to good health and longevity.

But here is the surprise: A number of observational studies indicate that religious involvement is associated with lower mortality. In a meta-analytic review published in the journal Health Psychology in 2000, nearly 126,000 subjects were surveyed in measures of religious involvement, and there was a significant survival advantage for those who scored higher.

In an intriguing study from the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science from 2019, the researchers analyzed more than 1,000 obituaries from 42 U.S. cities and found that people who had religious affiliation lived more than five years longer than those who did not, even when controlling for the effects of gender and marital status. In the same study, the researchers analyzed a sample of 500 churchgoers vs. non-churchgoers in Des Moines, Iowa. The churchgoers lived almost 10 years longer.

Research to separate the importance of religious affiliation from the benefits of social affiliation was undertaken in a study comparing mortality in religious kibbutzim vs. secular kibbutzim published in the American Journal of Public Health (1996). To put their study in perspective, the authors pointed out that “the kibbutz population as a whole, relative to the general Israeli population, is characterized by low mortality.” This study spanned 16 years and followed 3,900 men and women.

The kibbutzim involved in the study were similar economically and in their social structure, and both types were considered cohesive and supportive communities. However, the findings showed a distinctly lower mortality rate in religious kibbutzim than in secular kibbutzim among men and women of all ages, and across all major causes of death.

What might be the reasons why religious affiliation affects health?

The authors of this study from the American Journal of Public Health (1997) offer some answers. More than 5,000 participants from Alameda County were followed for 28 years to examine the association between religious attendance and mortality. The researchers found lower mortality rates for frequent religious attendees compared with infrequent attendees, even after adjusting for mental and physical health.

The authors proposed the following explanations for the health benefit of the frequent attendees: peer influence on good health practices, increased self-esteem, increased sense of perceived control, a general philosophical outlook that values social ties and treating one’s body with respect.

Another reason for the health benefit of religious affiliation might be because of volunteering.

A study from Psychology of Religion and Spirituality (May 2021) showed that greater religious service attendance was associated with the likelihood of volunteering.

A meta-analysis of five studies from England in 2013 showed that volunteers had a 22% reduction in mortality compared to non-volunteers!

One theory proposed by the authors of the kibbutzim study was that observance of the Sabbath and festivals could contribute to stress reduction by promoting prayer and rest. (Chronic stress has been linked to chronic disease and shorter life expectancy.)

Other salutary effects they proposed were the “relaxation response” induced by frequent prayer, belief in the “Almighty,” and highly stable marital bonding found in the religious kibbutzim. (The divorce rate in secular kibbutzim was 11 times greater.)

Also, religious networks provide support and guidance at the time of a personal crisis. (There were five deaths by suicide in the secular kibbutzim vs. one in a religious kibbutz.)

I suspect that there are probably other effects that explain the health benefits of religious affiliation that have yet to be identified, and I am interested to hear comments from J. readers.

In summary, during this time of falling life expectancy in the United States, following good health practices and staying affiliated with your synagogue or other house of worship may be more vital than ever.

Dr. Jerry Saliman

Jerry Saliman, MD, retired from Kaiser South San Francisco after a 30-year career and is now a volunteer internist at Samaritan House Medical Clinic in San Mateo.