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
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
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
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
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.