Spiritual Involvement, Longevity, and Health

There is a strong connection between spirituality, health, and longevity. A study of the spiritual practices of almost 4,000 adults ages 64 to 101 by Duke University researchers was one of the first research projects to show an association between private spiritual activities and longevity (Helm Hays, Flint, Koenig & Blazer, 2000). Scientists examined the effects of activities like meditation and prayer on survival. The research showed that low levels of meditation, prayer, or other activities significantly predicted death in healthy seniors. Even when the investigators controlled for demographics, health status, depression, and related factors, seniors with little or no spiritual activity were 63 percent more likely to die during a period of six years.

Another Duke University study included patients who have or had blocked coronary arteries (Krucoff et al., 2003). The pilot study integrated spiritual-related therapies (including guided imagery, breath control, touch therapy, and off-site prayer) with traditional treatment. Patients who received spiritual-related therapies in addition to their standard treatment had 30 percent fewer medical complications overall. And those who were treated with off-site prayers from eight prayer groups around the world had 50 percent fewer minor complications and 100 percent fewer major complications.

Religious Involvement, Longevity, and Health

Like spiritual practices, religious involvement is also associated with better health and increased longevity. A study of U.S. adults estimates that religious involvement prolongs life by about seven years (Hummer, Rogers, Nam & Edison, 1999). Investigators followed 21,000 adults for nine years. Religious attendance was a strong predictor of survival, even taking into account other factors such as higher incomes and education. People in the study who did not attend religious services were about four times more likely to die from respiratory disease, diabetes, or infectious diseases than those who did not attend such services.

In another study of 5,286 people, those who attended religious services weekly or more were 25 percent less likely to dies than infrequent attendees (Strawbridge, Cohen, Shema, & Kaplan, 1997). People who attended frequently were also more likely to make healthier choices such as quitting smoking, increasing exercising, and expanding social contacts.

An interesting finding from this study disputes the theory that those in better health are more likely to attend religious services than those who are sick or disabled, which would result in attendees living longer for health reasons, not because of their religious involvement. The study found people with significant impairment in mobility were, in fact, more likely to be frequent attendees.

Even after considering key health and social factors, another recent study found chances of living longer expanded by 28 percent for seniors who attended religious meetings each week (Koenig et al., 1999).

Yet another study surveyed a random sample of nearly 4,000 seniors ages 64 and older living in North Carolina to see if attending religious services had any bearing on living longer. The seniors were interviewed every year for six years. The analysis revealed that the risk of dying for frequent attendees was 46 percent lower than those attending less often. According to the authors of the study, “Religious attendees were physically healthier, had more social support, and lived healthier lifestyles than less0frequent attendees.” Women had a 35 percent lower risk of death, compared to a 17 percent lower risk for men.

Mental Health Benefits of Religious Involvement

Fundamental to the positive correlation of spirituality and religion to mental health is their role in helping older people cope with life events. Ninety percent of seniors report that their religion helps them cope with the challenges of aging. Forty-five percent say that religion helps them cope during stressful life events.

Prayer, church attendance, support from a congregation, and related behaviors have been identified as coping mechanisms (Koenig, 1995) suggests the following relationships:

  • A positive relationship between religion and self-esteem or self-mastery
  • A positive relationship between religion and subjective well-being or life satisfaction
  • An inverse relationship between religion and depression
  • An inverse relationship between religion and suicide