Can religious belief make you live longer?

Those with religious affiliations live an average of almost four years longer than those with none, according to new research by Ohio State University in the US.

The four-year boost – found in an analysis of more than 1,000 obituaries – was calculated after taking into account the sex and marital status of those who died, two factors that have strong effects on lifespan.

Laura Wallace, the study’s lead author, said: ‘Religious affiliation had nearly as strong an effect on longevity as gender does, which is a matter of years of life.’

The researchers found that part of the reason for the boost in longevity came from the fact that many religiously affiliated people also volunteered and belonged to social organisations, which previous research has linked to living longer.

Wallace said: ’We found that volunteerism and involvement in social organisations only accounted for a little less than one year of the longevity boost that religious affiliation provided. There’s still a lot of the benefit of religious affiliation that this can’t explain.’

In addition, the study showed how the effects of religion on longevity might depend in part on the personality and average religiosity of the cities where people live.

The researchers acknowledge that there are limitations to the study, including the fact that it could not control for important factors related to longevity such as race and health behaviours. But a potential strength was that, unlike other studies, religious affiliation was not self-reported, but was reported by the obituary writer.

Overall, the study provided additional support to the growing number of studies showing that religion does have a positive effect on health, Wallace said.

The study has been published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.