Spend any time in a church, synagogue, mosque or temple this weekend? If so, good for you. No, really, good for you.

A new analysis of dozens of past studies confirms that regular attendance at religious services is related to living a longer life: You're 29 percent more likely to live a longer life if you're involved in religion than if you aren't.

The study was done by Michael McCullough of the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a privately funded think tank in Bethesda, Md., devoted to the study of religion and medicine.

McCullough, a psychologist, and several colleagues looked at 42 studies that attempted to measure religious involvement and its effect on mortality over the past three decades. Together, the research examined the experiences of nearly 126,000 people.

The review of the studies is published in the latest issue of Health Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association.

"We think this analysis pretty much establishes that this correlation of religious involvement and mortality exists but also points to the need for a lot more research to determine just how and why it has an effect," McCullough said.

"This is just a first word; we have miles to go before we have a good understanding of what's happening. Compared to the research done on smoking or gender and mortality, this is a tiny, tiny effort."

In fact, most of the data have come from a few questions about religious practice added to other medical studies on health habits and various diseases. "We've gotten little detailed information about people's religious lives," McCullough said. "Any warm body that shows up at church gets counted as a religious person."

For the analysis, public religious involvement is defined by how frequently a person attends church or temple, whether a person is a member of a religious organization or how much time a person spends in church activities.

Private religious involvement included measures such as self-ratings of religiousness, frequency of private prayer and use of religion as a coping mechanism.

The results in most of the studies indicated that involvement in public religious activity was particularly important in predicting mortality.

But while being involved in religion may explain in part why some people live longer than others, there are a number of other reasons for longevity, including race, age, education, social support and health history.

"It's a given that in religious organizations, people find new sources of social support that tends to make people healthier, but in most of the studies, that social support is factored out, yet the religious are still more likely to live longer," McCullough said.

The researchers also noted that people who are actively religious tend to take better care of themselves in several key health areas. For instance, results seemed to indicate that those with a high level of religious involvement are less obese.

"It appears from these studies that religious people tend to be thinner to start with," McCullough said. "But this is controversial, because some general population studies have found that religious people are actually more obese."

It's also known that the restrictions of some religious groups do make members healthier, like prohibitions against smoking and drinking among the Seventh Day Adventists and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the researcher said.


On the Net: www.nihr.org. National Institute for Healthcare Research.

www.apa.org. American Psychological Association.