A new study suggests that regular attendance at a place of worship will give you some protection from dying early, especially from common diseases of the heart, lungs and stomach.
Researchers analyzed the health records of 6,525 northern Californians who were tracked from 1965 to 1996. Those who didn't consistently attend worship services were 21 percent more likely to have died than those who did.
In other words, six people who didn't attend regular services died for every five who worshiped routinely, says study lead author Doug Oman, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.
"That can make a difference if you're the sixth one," he says.
Hundreds of studies have linked religious faith to good health. But this new study, which will appear in the April 4 issue of the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, is one of the first to examine the connections between service attendance and specific diseases.
The researchers found no link between attendance and protection from cancer. But they did find that those who didn't attend services regularly were twice as likely to die of non-cancerous digestive diseases and 21 percent more likely to die of cardiovascular disease, including heart and stroke. The rate of respiratory diseases (other than cancer) was 66 percent higher.
"It's not surprising that people who attend church are healthier," says Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health.
Those who attend regular services probably "have a common belief system that's optimistic and hopeful and makes sense of tragedy and trauma," he says.
Koenig acknowledges that the lack of a link to cancer in the new study is odd, but he has a possible explanation.
"It could be that people who attend religious services live to an age when they're more likely to get cancer, while others die before they get there," he says.
The researchers first interviewed the participants in their study in 1965, when they lived in Alameda County, best known as home to the city of Oakland, on the east side of San Francisco Bay. All were 21 or older at the time.
They were interviewed again in 1974, 1983 and 1994. The researchers then examined death records through 1996, to determine how many participants had died and of what causes.
The San Francisco Bay area leans to the left politically, and the study's participants did, also. Almost 52 percent described themselves as liberal Protestants. Slightly more than one-quarter were Roman Catholic; 7 percent were affiliated with other Christian denominations; and 2.5 percent were Jewish.
Fewer than 1 percent were members of non-Western religions, and 11 percent said they had no religious affiliation.
The researchers -- from the University of California, Berkeley, the Public Health Institute, and the California Department of Health Services -- adjusted the death rates to make sure they weren't influenced by factors like smoking and prior health conditions.
The links between lower death rates and service attendance remained, even when those influences were removed, Oman says.
Although the statistical connections are clear, it's still hard to understand why they exist, he says. But it appears that human relationships play a role, he adds.
Those who attend services regularly "have larger social networks, which are known to be associated with better health," Oman says. "People help each other in a lot of different ways."
Another explanation could have to do with the "inner peace" and coping mechanisms that come from religion, he adds.
It didn't seem to matter what denomination people belonged to, with the exception of those from non-Western faiths like Buddhism, Oman says.
"They attended less often, but they didn't seem to suffer as much as everybody else not attending services," he says.
That may be because some of the non-Western religions place less emphasis on group worship, Oman says. "Maybe they were getting inner peace from the different way the religion itself operates," he says.
Koenig says the study doesn't definitely show a link between worship attendance and health. The only way to determine if there's a conclusive link is to take a group of non-attenders and make them attend worship services -- or vice versa.
"But that," he adds, "is almost impossible."
What To Do
For an affirmative look at religion and health, check the John Templeton Foundation, sponsored by Harvard Medical School.
For an alternative viewpoint, visit The Skeptic Society, where everything -- including religion -- is treated with a hefty dose of, well, skepticism.