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Living Longer

“The ultimate [baby] boomer game today,” writes Timothy Egan, “is competitive longevity.”

He was commenting in an op-ed on notable editor/writer Michael Kinsley’s self-documented struggle with Parkinson’s disease.

A religious clue to the game showed up in a Washington Post article by Julie Zauzmer: “A Possible Benefit of Going to Church: A 33 Percent Chance of Living Longer.”

“Sightings” cannot fail to follow up on such clues, especially when the Post piece is grounded in a scientific source, none other than an issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

As if the attention of JAMA was not credentialing enough, one can invoke the source of the statistic-enriched data – the Harvard School of Public Health – which JAMA notes in an article co-authored by Tyler VanderWeele reporting on his and his colleagues’ work.

We’ve spent more lines than usual on the credentialing authority for this item, which has considerable relevance to anyone chronicling “public religion” concerns, as we are commissioned to do.

The study surveyed almost 75,000 white female (mainly) Protestant or Catholic nurses over a 20-year period during which 13,000 died.

Here came the hard-to-overlook statistic: Women who went to religious services “more than once a week,” it turned out, “had 33 percent lower mortality risk during the study period and lived an average of five months longer” compared to women who never attended services.

The odds of dying went down not 33 percent but 26 percent for weekly attenders, and down only 13 percent for those who went less than weekly.

Comparative longevity interests have always been strong, but in recent times books on the “how-to live longer” shelves are multiplying explosively. Some of these advocate some vitamin, medication or exercise.

Will the findings on which VanderWeele and colleagues report lead to a surge in church attendance, one which might help counter the widely reported-on decline in worshipping at churches?

They are cautious: “Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that physicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate.”

But: “Our results do not imply that health care professionals should prescribe attendance at religious services, but for those who already hold religious beliefs, attendance at services could be encouraged as a form of meaningful social participation.”

Attending services had several positive benefits: The longer-lived women were more likely to have quit smoking, were less likely to show signs of depression, and experienced that “service attendance is increasing social support.”

Nurses in the study who suffered from breast cancer were less likely to die of it than were the non-regulars. VanderWeele: “[I]t was surprising.”

Zauzmer, being a responsible journalist, does not get carried away. She quotes skeptics who think all this has little to do with proving the existence or non-existence of God, and one said that common participation in worship is “just anthropologically one of the strongest ways human communities are held together.”

Responsible theologians, chaplains, spiritual leaders and counselors also know how not to misuse the “33 percent”-type data. A person worships for intrinsic reasons, based in belief, spiritual experience, service-activities, friendship and more.

No JAMA report is likely to prompt mass church-going as a gimmick in the longevity game.

Still, just in case, some may wish to check out the effects of a report like this on attendance at any nearby Catholic or Protestant church – if they can find a seat in the newly crowded pews.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. A version of this article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission. You can follow Sightings on Twitter @DivSightings.