It’s now well established that religious faith is associated with living longer. But does it matter which faith you believe in?
Alda says that prayer, work, good nutrition and a simple life explain her longevity: “It is the Lord that keeps us alive and we need to love our God. If I am to live some more years it is all up to him.”
For Myrtle the key is ‘hard work, and eating lot of fresh vegetables and fruit, exercising and saying the Rosary every day,” according to her daughter Nadine Voegeli.
They have famous support. The film actress Maureen O’Hara, asked in her 80s for the secret of her longevity, replied: “Say your Hail Mary every night when you go to bed.” She lived to 95.
So is there any reason to believe that Catholicism – or any other specific religion for that matter – is associated with longer life?
Probability rating: 8 out of 10. As we’ve seen, religious faith is strongly associated with a longer life. Virtually all the evidence comes from the United States, however, and focuses on the main Christian denominations and Judaism.
If we accept those considerable limitations, there is evidence from these US studies that Catholics do live longer than some other faiths. On average, Catholics have a 23 percent lower risk of dying in any given year than atheists and agnostics, but also a gain over black and evangelical Protestants. This positive effect remains, albeit reduced, when we control for demographic factors such as income and lifestyle factors such as healthy eating.
We don’t need to look to metaphysics to explain these results. There is a broad consensus that the benefit comes from the psychological and social benefits of attending religious services. Religious faith gives a purpose and meaning to life, and going to services provides vital social connections and a support network. Faiths that involve most attendance at services should, these surveys suggest, offer most benefit.
Catholics are not the longest-lived faith in the United States: Protestants and Jews both live slightly longer. However all are put into the shade by two smaller religions: Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons.
Seventh Day Adventists believe in the imminent Second Coming of Jesus and observe Saturday (the seventh day in Jewish and Christian calendars) as their holy day. A study followed 34,000 Adventists in California, from 1976 to 1988 and found Adventists lived far longer than non-Adventists: 7.3 years longer for men, 4.4 years for women.
The Mormons – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – do even better. A 25-year study found that men who were highly committed to the Mormon lifestyle had a life expectancy 9.8 years longer than US white males, while highly committed females had a life expectancy 5.6 years longer than US white females.
Once again, metaphysics isn’t needed to explain the results. In both cases, in addition to the social support of a close-knit community, the key factor was lifestyle. The Adventist study found five behaviors that accounted for their longevity: eating a plant-based diet, never smoking, consuming nuts several times per week, exercising regularly and maintaining a normal weight. For the Mormons, the keys were avoidance of alcohol and tobacco and a limit on meat consumption in favor of grains, fruits and vegetables.
Which is fitting because when we revisit Myrtle and Aldo’s longevity secrets we find that they share that belief. While both identify faith as a factor in their lifespan, both also identify lifestyle: nutrition, exercise and – for both – hard work. What you believe matters but how you live matters too.
And if there is one clear demonstration of this it is found in a study of one group of Catholics who do particularly well in life expectancy. Nuns live significantly longer than US women generally but the benefit appears to be due to one simple lifestyle difference: they don’t smoke.