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Can Going to Church Help You Live Longer?

 

It's no secret that certain lifestyle choices can have a major impact on your health. Hitting the club until 3 a.m. every night = bad. Sunrise yoga = good.

But according to a new study published in JAMA International Medicine, one lifestyle habit, in particular, might have a seriously positive effect on your long-term health. Using data from the Nurses' Health Study (which included the lifestyle habits and health outcomes of more than 74,000 women between 1992 and 2012), researchers from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health explored how attending regular religious services might impact health and overall longevity.

They found that regular churchgoers are reaping more benefits than just the sense of peace that comes from attending services. Compared with those who never attended religious services, women who attended church more than once a week had a 33 percent lower risk of mortality during the study period and lived five months longer on average.

What's more, women who reported attending religious services at least once a week also had a 27 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular causes and a 21 percent lower risk of dying from cancer. Amen to that.

So what does this mean for you if you're not religious? According to Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D., lead author on the study, there are a few components of churchgoing that you could theoretically apply to other areas of your life to see these benefits. The most obvious mechanism behind why being part of a church community benefits your health is the social support system. But according to VanderWeele, the social support component accounts for less than a quarter of the lowered mortality rates.

"Religion shapes so much of your outlook, behaviors, beliefs, and sense of life's meaning and purpose," says VanderWeele. "My speculation, though we do not have data on this, would be that groups that not only have social gatherings but also have a shared sense of meaning, healthy behavioral norms, and a common vision for life would have a larger effect on mortality than, say, would merely showing up at a bingo game."

In other words, if you're not religious, simply joining a book club won't necessarily serve as a replacement when it comes to your health. But joining a workout or meditation group that meets regularly, shares similar goals, and supports your healthy lifestyle choices, might.