Harvard Women's Health Watch

Attending religious services linked to longer lives, study shows

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Although religious observance is declining in the United States, about 40% of American women still attend services regularly, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center. Many short-term studies over the years have indicated that practicing a religion may have a positive impact on health, but the results have been questioned. Could it be that people who regularly attend churches, synagogues, or mosques are able to because they are healthier to begin with? A team from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health decided to address that question with data from the 115,000-woman Nurses' Health Study by analyzing women's religious attendance and health over 16 years—a number large enough and a period long enough to rule out the possibility that only the healthy were churchgoers.

The researchers analyzed data from questionnaires completed every four years from 1996 to 2012. Among 74,534 women who responded, 14,158 said they attended religious services more than once per week, 30,401 attended once per week, 12,103 attended less than once per week, and 17,872 never attended. Over 16 years there were 13,537 deaths, including 2,721 from cardiovascular disease and 4,479 from cancer. When the researchers matched deaths with reported religious attendance, they found that women who attended religious services more than once per week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the 16 years of follow-up compared with women who never attended religious services. Women who attended services weekly had a 26% lower risk, and those who attended services less than weekly had a 13% lower risk. The researchers also found that women who went to services regularly had lower rates of smoking and depression and were more likely to have strong social support than those who didn't.

The researchers acknowledged that going to services is only one way to measure spirituality and suggested that further research examine other spiritual practices, such as meditation. The study was published online May 16, 2016, by JAMA Internal Medicine.