Why Do People of Faith Live Longer?

by Micaela Ricaforte '20

A recent study finds that people who regularly attend religious services live approximately four years longer than average. Researchers built the study from previous data suggesting that social interaction, volunteer work, and healthy habits can lead to a longer life. While one could point to gym memberships and service clubs as offering similar results, there are unique benefits to church attendance that are difficult to measure. Consistent engagement with a community of believers deepens faith, enriches the soul, and may be the real key to longevity.

Researchers from Ohio State University conducted two surveys studying more than 1,500 newspaper obituaries first from Ohio, then from across the United States. In both samples, the study showed that those with documented religious affiliations lived an average of 9.45 and 5.64 years longer respectively than those who did not. When other important factors like gender and marital status were calculated, the number dropped to 6.48 and 3.82 years.“There’s still a lot of the benefit of religious affiliation that this can’t explain,” said Laura Wallace, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in psychology at Ohio State University.

These results come as no surprise to Azusa Pacific University's experts in the fields of counseling and faith.

“Churchgoers tend to engage in positive behaviors including high social interaction and lower rates of alcohol and drug abuse,” said Bill Fiala, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and professor in APU’s Department of Higher Education. “In addition, religious support and coping are both related to positive outcomes in mental health.”

In 2002, Fiala published a scholarly article on the positive social support that church members receive. Fiala’s study found that religious support can provide unique resources for people of faith, above and beyond those furnished by social support. These three distinct subgroups of religious support were identified as support from the congregation, from church leadership, and from God. All three of these categories lowered depression and increased life satisfaction.

“We’re not compartmental beings. If something impacts my soul, chances are it also impacts my body,” Fiala said. “With studies like this, we’re always looking at behavior because it’s tangible. We can measure how often somebody goes to church because that’s easier to quantify, but how do you quantify your soul?”

Rev. Kevin W. Mannoia, Ph.D., graduate and faculty chaplain at APU, emphasized the importance of holistic health. “I’ve noticed an increase in the acknowledgement of the role of spirituality in the health sciences, and I think that’s a positive and important trajectory,” he said. “The field of healthcare sees a growing need to treat people holistically, paying attention to the whole being: body, mind, and soul.”

“[The Ohio State study] measures the tangible practice of going to church and correlates that to mortality,” Mannoia said. “I would take that to a deeper level and say that a spiritually healthy participation in a local church means that I become permeable and vulnerable to others. I enter into a relationship of mutuality with others, and that mentality reminds me that I am not alone, and it reminds me of my place in God’s story.”

Mannoia said he thinks there is more to longevity than healthy practices, and that we can’t relegate the spiritual aspect of our lives to Sundays.

“Getting at the issue, I think it’s not merely activities that cause longevity of life. Activities are the outcome of healthy spirituality in relationship to God,” Mannoia said. “So what causes those outcomes? It is the deep peace, or the shalom of God. Those practices-—prayer, volunteer work, meditation, church attendance—are evidence of a healthy, integrated, and balanced life. That's the way God intended for us to live.”

Micaela Ricaforte is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a double major in journalism and honors humanities.