Here's an interesting statistic. 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, thus confounding the normal correlation between poverty and poor health.
Certainly, heightened health consciousness cannot explain the longevity of Bnei Brak residents. Many men smoke, and a quick glance around the city is sufficient to establish that news of the benefits of exercise and a low-fat diet has not yet reached most of Bnei Brak's 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 demonstrate a positive correlation.
Various studies have shown that religious belief and regular attendance at religious services are associated with reduced doctors' visits, a lower incidence of certain forms of cancer and heart disease, decreased post-operative mortality and quicker rates of recovery.
The Harvard Health News Letter devoted a full issue last year 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 once a week are half as likely to have elevated blood levels of interleukin-6, which is associated with some cancers and heart disease.
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.)
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 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.
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.
Harvard researcher, Dr. Herbert Benson, has found a correlation between prayer and a generally upbeat, optimistic attitude. While optimism and a number of other factors correlated to lower mortality - healthier lifestyles, greater community support, and reduced stress - may be more common among religious people, they are not exclusive to religious believers.
At least one finding, however, has completely stumped the scientists. Two major double-blind studies have found a relationship between improved medical outcomes and being prayed for. Two Duke University researchers presented a study of 150 patients suffering from acute heart disease at the American Heart Association. 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 on his behalf.
And a Columbia University medical school study of women undergoing in vitro fertilization found that the pregnancy rate for women being prayed for was twice as high as for women who were not (50% versus 26%). Neither the women undergoing treatment nor the medical staff caring for them knew of the study.
Dr. Rogerio Lobo, chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia and lead author of the study, confessed to being completely perplexed by the result.
IN ADDITION to the positive benefits generally associated with a religious lifestyle, there are those specifically associated with Orthodox Jews. 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 20s eagerly hanging on the Talmudic discourses of Torah sages in their late 80s or even 90s, with both sides shouting back and forth in vigorous debate.
The rule with respect to preserving mental acuity is: use it or lose it. The rigorous lifelong Torah study of Orthodox men helps stave off the mental deterioration associated with age. In addition, the continuation of activities that they have been engaged in from youth lessens the feeling of being past one's prime.
Both factors reduce depression, which is highly correlated with increased mortality rates among seniors. Orthodox family structure would also seem to prolong life. Orthodox Jews have much higher rates of marriage and lower rates of divorce, and both are associated with longer life. Nine of 10 married men alive at 48 will make it to 65. The comparable figure for never-married men is six out of 10, and divorced and widowed men fare only slightly better.
The large size of Orthodox families helps ensure that the elderly will not find themselves with the feeling that their continued existence is of no concern to anyone. Most Bnei Brak seniors can count on frequent visits from several generations of descendants, and experience the constant satisfaction of witnessing their own continuity. There are always life-cycle events of descendants to anticipate.
Broadcaster Natan Zahavi, not generally known as a friend of the haredi community, recently described his amazement at the respect shown by haredim for their elderly parents in the nursing home in which his mother was confined. The haredi woman next to his mother was never without sons or daughters at her side, and when Zahavi could not be there, the haredim kept a constant eye on his mother and fulfilled her every request. Zahavi was particularly struck by the way one haredi man spent hours on Shabbat, caressing his mother's hand and repeating over and over, "Ima, Shabbos Kadosh, Shabbos Kadosh," in order to keep her alive.
No number of studies establishing a correlation between religious belief and health can provide that faith to those who lack it. But those who already possess that faith will not be surprised that following God's instruction book turns out to be good for you.