Religion, Health and Longevity
Part 3 in the "Why Judaism?" series
In the introduction to this series of posts, Why Judaism?, I explained that I will be presenting a discussion of various benefits of religion. In a second post, titled The Limits of Religious Benefits, I added some qualifications. In this post, I will exploring the first of these benefits.
In the Shema, we find a striking reward promised for observing the Torah: “Lemaan yirbu yemechem… So that your days shall be lengthened.” But does this really happen? Does Judaism lead to long life?
Many of the poorest countries in the world, which have correspondingly short lifespans, are also the most religious countries. Developed countries, which are healthier, also tend to be more secular. And the residents of some secular countries such as Sweden and Japan have longer lifespans than those of more religious countries such as the USA. But in all these cases, there are obviously other factors involved. For example, when considering the lifespan of US residents, one must factor in their excessive and unhealthy diet, which is extreme by international standards.
The correct data comes from studying differences within the population of a single country. And in many (though not all) countries – in particular, the USA - religious people do live longer than non-religious people. In the late 1980s, a series of review articles summarized evidence concerning religious effects on mortality, drawing upon several hundred studies, some dating back as far as the 1800s. These that, on average, high levels of religious involvement are associated with better health status. And a more recent study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that on average, people whose obituary mentioned they were religious lived an extra 5.64 years!
These studies were for religion in general; I was unable to find any data specifically for Judaism. However, Israel is one of top ten countries in the world for life expectancy (at around 81 years for men and 85 for women). And a study of analyses across 170 countries to take into account wealth, education and inequality, as well as demographic characteristics and characteristics of the health system, predicted a life expectancy for Israeli men which was 7 years less than actuality. (Some attribute this to IDF service, but others disagree.)
Why does being religious help one live so much longer? There are several different contributory factors involved, which we shall discuss in separate posts. Each of them is separately a benefit of religion – the longevity is the cumulative effect.
I think it’s extraordinary. Think about all the effort and expense that people engage in for better health and longer life. And religion (as well as living in Israel) provides an incredible advantage in this area! This is just one of many rational reasons for living a religious life.
Rationalist Judaism is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.