religious-symbolsWhy do religious people live longer?

 by Mario D. Garrett, Ph.D.

A rare study–where a group of individuals born in 1920s were followed over several decades looking at their spiritual beliefs–reported that significant increase in spirituality was evident from late middle age (mid-50s to late 60s) to older adulthood (late 60s to mid-70s). This was irrespective of gender. Similar snapshots of people’s beliefs have been substantiated by survey research and public opinion polls since the 1930s. The consistent finding is that older means that you are likely to become more religious/spiritual.

Because aging is correlated with spirituality it is not surprising to find that spiritual people are older and that older people are spiritual. Aging is correlated with spirituality. Spirituality does not, by itself, confer increased longevity. Being spiritual or religious is not a good predictor of how old you will live to, although it might tell us how old you are now. This is despite anecdotal “secrets” for longevity that people older than 85 years, gave for their good health and long life, which were “faith in God” and “Christian living.” All valid responses but perhaps not accurate in this diverse society of today.

Allison Sullivan from the University of Pennsylvania published a study in 2011 showing that Jews have lower mortality than the rest of the USA. All other religions were comparable or, as with Black Protestants, had a life expectancy as much as five years lower than the average US citizen. So religion by itself is not a good predictor.

Religious affiliation follows other variables. For example, those that reported being Jewish reported lowest prevalence of drinking alcohol, were mainly women (comparable only to Catholics), were nearly exclusively White, and were the richest by a very wide margin. These are all factors that by themselves, regardless of their religious affiliation, promotes higher life expectancy. Religion and spirituality, by themselves, are not very good predictors of long life. Where religion and spirituality show distinct advantage is in coping with imminent death.

In an Australian study, which conducted detailed interviews of older adults in nursing homes and independent living homes, it was reported that religious older adults reframe memories and experiences linked with final meanings, transcend their losses and suffering, reported intimacy with God and others, and found hope. God for them was the ultimate consolidator

Reporting religious beliefs is also associated with how your caregivers treat you. Nursing assistants who held similar beliefs as their elderly long-term clients, expressed more meaningful connections with them which resulted in better care. Which brings up the issue of what happens when societies are becoming more diverse both in terms of culture and religion and also in term of sexual preferences?

Spirituality does not confer longevity although having meaning in life does–not necessarily spiritual. Especially if you compare people’s religious participation with other older adults participating in other social events, the difference in longevity between religious and non-religious participants disappears. Being religious by itself does not promote longevity, but it might help how you are treated should you lose your independence.