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L'chaim in B'nai Brak

Jonathan Rosenblum

Here's an interesting fact just in. Bnei Brak, Israel's most religious city, also has the highest average life expectancy: 81.1 years for women and 77.4 years for men.

What makes that finding even more curious is that Bnei Brak also happens to be Israel's poorest city, confounding the expected correlation between increased wealth and health. Moreover, smoking among males remains entirely too popular, and even a casual glance around the streets of Bnei Brak will serve to establish that news of the benefits of exercise and a low-fat diet has not yet reached many of its inhabitants.

A growing body of scientific evidence suggests the key to the longevity of Bnei Brak residents may well be their religiosity. Fully three-quarters of the 300 studies to date of the relationship between religious belief and health have shown a positive correlation. Various studies have shown that religious belief and regular attendance at religious services is associated with reduced doctors visits, a reduced incidence of certain forms of cancer and heart disease, and lower post-operative mortality and quicker rates of recovery.

The Harvard Health News Letter recently devoted a full issue to the impact of religiosity on health and courses in healing and spirituality are proliferating in American medical schools.

While none of the studies conducted to date can establish a causal link between religious belief and improved health, the associations shown are sufficient to give pause. A Duke University study showed that those who attend religious services one a week are half as likely to have elevated blood levels of interleukin-6, which is associated with some cancers and heart disease.

A 1995 Dartmouth Medical school study of 232 patients recovering from open-heart surgery found that none of the 37 patients who described themselves as deeply religious died over the first six months, while 21, or 10%, of the rest did. Those who received strong community support reinforced by strong religious belief were 14 times as likely to survive as those who had neither.

One California study, conducted over 28 years and published in 1997 found that those who attended religious services weekly had a one-third lower death rate. (Orthodox Jewish men pray three times daily, and Orthodox women one or more times a day.)

Even when a strong community support structure is kept constant, religious belief appears to have an independent salutary effect. A study comparing residents of kibbutzim with those of religious communities in Israel over 16 years, found that the religious community had consistently lower mortality rates for the entire period.

There is a close correlation between depression and higher mortality rates among older people. The large family-size in the Orthodox community and the great stress on the mitzvah of honoring one's parents help ensures that Bnei Brak's elderly will be frequently visited by several generations of descendants and experience the satisfaction on a constant basis of witnessing their own continuity.

From an early age, the primary mental activity of most Bnei Brak males is Talmudic study, and they continue to learn all their lives, even after they have retired from other pursuits. It is not unusual to see hundreds of young men in their twenties eagerly hanging on the Talmudic discourses of Torah sages in their late eighties or even nineties, with both sides shouting back and forth in vigorous debate. The constant source of intellectual stimulation provided by Torah study helps preserve mental acuity and with it life satisfaction.

Those in the observant community also have much higher rates of marriage, and lower rates of divorce. There is an abundance of evidence establishing the positive effects of marriage on health. Nine of ten married men alive at 48 will make it to 65. The comparable figure for never married men is six out of ten, and divorced and widowed men fare only slightly better.

While some of these positive correlations between a religious life and improved health can be explained by factors not uniquely associated with religion - healthier lifestyles, greater community support, reduced rates of stress (which Harvard researcher Dr Herbert Benson has found to be related to prayer), and a generally upbeat, optimistic attitude - at least one finding has completely stumped the scientists. Two Duke University researchers presented a study of 150 patients suffering from acute heart disease at the American Heart Association in which patients who were prayed for did significantly better than those who were not prayed for, even when the patient was completely unaware of the prayers.

Of course no link between religious belief and health, no matter how strong, can provide faith to those who lack it. But those who already possess that faith will not be surprised that following G-d's instruction book turns out to be good for you.


Jonathan Rosenblum is a Jerusalem Post columnist and the Israeli director of the Am Echad media outreach organization.

 






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