Being good has its rewards in this life, as well as in the next.
Research conducted partly at the University of Colorado at Boulder has found that regular churchgoers live longer than people who seldom or never attend worship services.
For the first time, that extra lifespan has been quantified. While there are differences between genders and races, in general those who go to church once or more each week can look forward to about seven more years than those who never attend.
Life expectancy beyond age 20 averages another 55.3 years, to age 75, for those who never attend church compared to another 62.9 years, age 83, for those who go more than once a week.
The research showed that people who never attended services had an 87 percent higher risk of dying during the follow-up period than those who attended more than once a week.
The research also revealed that women and blacks can enjoy especially longer lives if they are religiously active.
The findings are contained in a study conducted jointly by Rick Rogers, of CU-Boulder, Robert Hummer and Christopher Ellison, of the University of Texas at Austin, and Charles Nam, from Florida State University.
Rogers is a professor of sociology and a professional research associate with the population program at the university's Institute of Behavioral Science. The study drew on a 1987 National Health Interview Survey of more than 28,000 people and focused on more than 2,000 who died between 1987 and 1995.
Rogers said previous studies had examined and established links between religion, health outcomes and lower risks of mortality but this research broke new ground by testing those relationships against a number of variables.
The research team factored in such elements as education and income, social ties (including marital status and having friends and relatives to count on), and health status and behavior, including such things as smoking and alcohol use.
For example, educated and better off people, who have lower mortality, were more likely to attend church, while churchgoers generally were less likely to engage in such high risk health behaviors as smoking and excessive drinking.
Frequent churchgoers were also more likely to take part in social activities and enjoy a good supporting network of family and friends, which could help them avoid, or at least cope better with, times of stress or personal difficulty.
However, even after taking into account all these external factors and controlling the independent variables, the researchers found a "strong association" still persisted between infrequent or no religious attendance and higher mortality risk.
Researchers also found distinct and related patterns when looking at causes of death. For example, those who never attend services are about twice as likely to die from respiratory disease, diabetes or infectious diseases.
Rogers said this research established the importance of religious involvement as a fundamental cause of mortality. It also opened the door to further research perhaps examining religious attendance by denomination and looking at the less tangible spiritual issues.
The research findings were published this month in the latest edition of the prestigious national journal Demography and will be included in a book, "Living and Dying in the USA," due out in August.