The correlation between religious faith and health has been analyzed in more than 2,200 studies over the past few years, says Koenig, of Duke, and some suggest that believing in a higher power can boost more than just the spirit. While scientists still don't have a dependable method for measuring faith, research shows that people who attend church, temple, or mosque at least four times a month are less likely to engage in risky behavior, be depressed, or feel chronic stress. The faithful live longer, too. One 1999 study, published in the journal Demography, tracked 20,000 Americans and found that white people who regularly attended church lived an average 7 years longer than their nonchurchgoing counterparts, and black people lived a remarkable 14 years longer. Koenig explains that people who believe in God often feel that that in itself is the reward that gives life meaning. “It's the sense that God has a purpose for humanity and for all of creation, and that each of us has a special role in that divine plan,” he says.
It's not news that lending a hand can make you feel good about yourself and your life. But research now suggests that older people who give back have better physical and mental health and a lower mortality risk. One study published in the Journal of Urban Health found that volunteers ages 60 through 86 who helped in Baltimore public elementary schools outscored their nonparticipating counterparts in both physical and cognitive ability. The key is to volunteer in ways that seem meaningful to you, says Butler, of the National Institute on Aging. (Scores of such opportunities can be found at www.aarp.org/createthegood and www.volunteermatch.org.)
For Marge Jetton, volunteering still has its place, even in the retirement home where she now lives. After every meal, she happily reports, “I make the rounds to my friends and collect their empty bottles and cans.” Then, she says, “I give them to a lady who recycles them for cash. She's down on her luck and could use a hand.”
Dan Buettner is an explorer, writer, and Guinness world-record holder whose latest book is The Blue Zone: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who've Lived the Longest (National Geographic, 2008).