- Data suggests that ordained monks, priests, and other people of faith tend to live longer than laypersons.
- That said, it's hard to draw conclusions about what causes these people to live longer. It's possible that many of the positive health benefits that come from faith can also be found elsewhere.
- I wouldn't recommend picking up a newfound faith in the hopes of living longer.
In my previous post about intermittent fasting, I noted that aside from simply being a current diet trend, fasting is often sold for its supposed life-extending properties. Studies on fasting in rodents and other small animals show that, when put on a fast, these animals tended to live much longer. However, such research would be difficult to replicate ethically in humans, and as of yet we have little scientific support for the life-extending properties of intermittent fasting in humans.
One important key to understanding fasting as a concept is its relationship with religious austerities. In many cultures across the world, fasting is seen as a sign of piety. Buddhist monks are often forbidden from eating anything except what is given to them as charity. (Amusingly, however, a good Buddhist would probably deny the desire to live longer as a result of this austerity.) Devout Christians, historically, have seen a powerful connection between eating/not eating and their personal relationship with Christ. (I’ve recently been reading the excellent Holy Feast and Holy Fast, which details this connection in amazing clarity.) Muslims practice the month of Ramadan, during which they may not eat while the sun is up.
It tends to follow that if we want to understand the effects on fasting in humans, we should study those instances where it already occurs, since this is far more ethical than forcing people to fast. On the other hand, this introduces a great amount of confusion into the picture, because observational studies will pick out associative more than causal factors - in short, we can’t be sure if a monk would live longer because they fast, or if it was due to other environmental factors such as their community, access to healthcare, higher average activity levels, or more. So, research on fasting should be taken with a grain of salt - because we can’t be sure that we really understand what’s going on.
That said, there is positive evidence to suggest that religious lifestyles impart health benefits, in a general sense. A study on Belgian monks and nuns found that they both live longer, on average, than their lay counterparts. Studies on Ramadan suggest that it does have health benefits, and will generally help a bit with weight management (although, weight regain in the months following Ramadan is prevalent). At the same time, it is suggested that when analyzed more closely, the benefits of religiosity alone are inconsistent and may be a bit overhyped.
It would make “intuitive” sense that religious monks should live longer. Their lifestyles are generally closer to “natural” ideals of how people should live, they have powerful community support, access to healthcare, and religious beliefs to provide meaning, and they generally abstain from heavy eating and many other bad lifestyle habits such as smoking.
It has also long been believed that religiosity can confer psychological benefits - helping protect you against mental health issues - although I would argue that this one is probably not so simple.
In a general sense, being religious may help improve your lifespan. A sudden later-in-life conversion may shake you out of existing negative habit patterns and start you on the path towards self-improvement or otherwise create a positive feedback loop that leads to making better choices. I would argue that this is probably the best way that religion can help - by helping motivate you to make positive lifestyle changes.
Likewise, we can't be sure exactly what causes the longer lifespans of ordained religious practitioners, who have made a serious commitment to their faith. It could be activity levels, fasting, discipline, faith, mental health, community support, or more likely, all of these things working together.
So, I don’t think you should convert to another religion, or take up religious austerities, just because you think that it will help you live longer. Instead, you can probably make similar changes on your own, just by deliberately choosing to make improvements - working out more, managing your diet a bit, finding a supportive community, finding fulfilling purpose in your life, and so on.
I would also like to caution that it’s probably not all good. In faith, many kinds of self-denial can be given preference, not simply the somewhat-productive denial of food seen in fasting. These other kinds of denial may be less useful, or even detrimental to your health.
Historical Christian monks who flagellated themselves, refused to sleep, slept on boards, or exposed themselves to the elements may have been toughening themselves mentally, but it seems unlikely that it lengthened their lifespans. More likely, these behaviors even created health problems later on down the line. There are many stories of Christian monks and nuns who subsisted on nothing but very small amounts of food - but of course there are also many stories of monks and nuns who died an early age due to self-starvation. This kind of obsessive self-denial is less common in modern religiosity, but this doesn't mean that it's gone entirely - and many obsessive types are drawn to self-denial as a way of having greater control over their own lives.
So if you really want to be a monk - living a (little) bit longer (probably) is one of the perks of the job. But - I wouldn’t try to force religiosity as a way of extending your lifespan.
About Adam Fisher
Adam is an experienced fitness coach and blogger who's been blogging for 5+ years, coaching for 6+ years, and lifting for 12+ years. He's written for numerous major health publications, including Personal Trainer Development Center, T-Nation, Bodybuilding.com, Fitocracy, and Juggernaut Training Systems.
During that time he has coached hundreds of individuals of all levels of fitness, including competitive powerlifters and older exercisers regaining the strength to walk up a flight of stairs. His own training revolves around powerlifting and bodybuilding.
Adam writes about fitness, health, science, philosophy, personal finance, self-improvement, productivity, the good life, and everything else that interests him. When he's not writing or lifting, he's usually hanging out with his cat or feeding his video game addiction.
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