Studies show health benefits

One hundred sixty years ago, the Prophet Joseph Smith received the revelation now known as the Word of Wisdom and recorded as the 89th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants. In the form of a warning, this early-day guide to good health is a necessary requirement to become a Church member.

Total abstention from the use of alcohol, tobacco, dangerous drugs and hot drinks is required in order for a person to receive all of the spiritual and temporal blessings the Lord has promised.One of the temporal blessings He has promised to those who keep the Word of Wisdom states, "And all saints who remember to keep and do these sayings . . . shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bone." (D&C 89:18.) If we consider this statement to mean good overall health, then Church members who abide by the teachings of the Word of Wisdom should have good overall health, perhaps better than those who do not abide by its warnings.

During the '60s, '70s and '80s, several prominent epidemiologists, working entirely independent of each other, conducted several large studies on the health of Church members. One of the studies by Dr. James E. Enstrom of the School of Public Health at UCLA involved mailing out 12,000 surveys to LDS high priests and wives in California.1 Eight years later the information gathered on these surveys was matched with Church records to determine how many of the survey respondents had passed away during that period. Dr. Enstrom's findings show there are clear physical blessings associated with adherence to the Word of Wisdom and the LDS style of living.

Figure 1 shows a comparison of the death rates of various groups of middle-aged white Americans. With the average death rate of U.S. whites being equal to 100 percent, the other groups can then be compared. Those Americans who never smoked had a moderately reduced death rate when compared to the national rates. The only difference between this group and the general U.S. white population is that the effects of tobacco have been removed. No information regarding abstinence from the use of alcohol, coffee, tea or other possible harmful substances was reported which may explain why the decreases found among this group were not larger. The figure also shows death rates for non-smoking members of health-conscious religious groups other than LDS. Their death rates are very close to the rates experienced by the sum total of LDS survey respondents.

By further categorizing the LDS survey data by those who never smoked, had regular physical activity and received 7-8 hours of sleep a night, the author of the study was able to identify a subgroup of LDS survey participants who were more likely to keep the Word of Wisdom. Death rates for this subgroup of LDS high priests and their wives are among the lowest ever reported. The males in this group had an 80 percent reduction in death rate from all causes of death, while their wives had a 55 percent decrease.

The two health practices of getting regular exercise and proper amounts of sleep are not specifically mentioned in the Word of Wisdom but have been determined to be beneficial to one's health. As the graph shows, further reductions in death rates can be achieved by middle-aged members if they include exercise and the proper amount of sleep in their lifestyles.

A majority of the deaths due to cancer are related to smoking. Because most LDS members do not smoke, their death rate due to cancer should be much lower than the U.S. rate. Figure 2 demonstrates that this is true. The decrease in cancers found among LDS populations as compared to the United States as a whole is associated with smoking-relating cancers, such as lung and throat cancer. These reductions in smoking-related deaths are possible even though a person may have smoked during a previous period in his or her life but had terminated all tobacco use. Even rates from non-smoking-caused cancer, except prostate cancer, were significantly lower for Church members. Active high priests had a slightly higher rate of death due to prostate cancer than the rest of the nation. No explanation is given for this slight increase.

Figure 3 illustrates death rates for LDS members and the national averages from 1980-1987. Deaths were categorized into deaths due to cancer, cardiovascular disease and all deaths combined. Death-rate reductions of approximately 50 percent were seen in all deaths and deaths due to cancer and cardiovascular diseases, indicating that LDS members have decreased death rates due to factors besides the avoidance of tobacco and alcohol.

Several studies have compared death rates between LDS members who do not smoke or drink alcohol with other religious U.S. populations who also do not partake of tobacco or alcohol. With these health habits being equal, the LDS members still had significantly lower rates of death due to cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Several researchers have attempted to explain the additional good health LDS members enjoy when compared to other populations that do not smoke or drink alcohol.

Some of their conclusions state that in general, active LDS members are more educated than non-members and thus tend to have more white-collar type occupations.2 Having more education may reflect a greater health awareness and a healthier lifestyle. Most white-collar jobs do not have the exposure to occupational hazards as do some blue-collar type jobs and may have less risk of cancer and other exposure- related illnesses.

The use of coffee and tea have been related to some types of cancer, and avoidance of these substances may prolong life. Many Church members have rural backgrounds and tend to continue the same dietary, cooking, and gardening skills even though they move to large cities. Home-grown and home-cooked food and high fiber diets may aid in the reduction in certain cancers. Active members of the Church have lower rates of divorce and marry fewer times. Though the reasons are not known, married adults have lower incidence of many cancers.

Additionally, active members live in monogamous relationships and generally have only one sexual partner for the entirely of their lives. There is a high relationship between the number of sexual partners a person has and incidence of cervical cancer. This may explain some of the low rates of cervical cancers among LDS females. Lastly, active members have strong social ties with their families and other members of the Church. Such social networks of support and communication can have long-term health benefits. There is substantial research indicating that people who experience close relationships with friends and relatives live longer.

It is estimated from epidemiological data that LDS members who also adhered to the three health practices mentioned earlier, had significantly increased life spans (Figure 4). Males lived an average 11 years longer than the typical white American, and females lived 6 years longer. Such increases in life expectancy mean that the average LDS male member who never smoked, exercises, and gets proper sleep and nutrition will live 11 years longer. The average life span for this LDS group is seven years longer than the highest life expectancy of any of the industrialized nations.

Other studies have shown that comparisons between the rates of cancer death between active Utah and California members revealed no significant differences. Adult LDS males holding Melchizedek Priesthood offices tend to be healthier than adult LDS males of similar ages who do not hold the Melchizedek Priesthood. This suggests that the commitment to the Word of Wisdom among adult Melchizedek Priesthood holders is higher than the adherence to the Lord's law of health on the part of adult Aaronic Priesthood holders. Less-active LDS members have higher death rates than do active members.

Finally, there was no notable differences between the death rates of active LDS members who live in rural versus urban environments.3 Because of the worldwide use of tobacco and alcohol, members of the Church in other parts of the world may see similar reductions in death rates and extensions of life spans when compared to population averages.

It has taken many years for researchers to identify the health risks associated with alcohol, tobacco and coffee use and even longer to show how adherents to the Word of Wisdom have better health. However, enough information has been gathered to conclude that those individuals who keep the Word of Wisdom will likely be healthier and live longer than those who do not; they will usually be blessed with health to their navel and marrow to their bones.

Enstrom, J.E., Health Practices and Cancer Mortality Among Active California Mormons, Journal of the National Cancer Institute 81:1807-1814, 1989.

West D., Lyon L., Gardner J., Cancer Risk Factors: An Analysis of Utah Mormons and Non-Mormons, Journal of the National Cancer Institute 65:1083-1095, 1980.

Lyon L., Gardner J., West D., Cancer in Utah: Risk by Religion and Place of Residence, Journal of the National Cancer Institute 65:1063-1071, 1980.

Steven G. Aldana is an assistant professor of physical education and leisure at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Okla. He is Young Men president in the Stillwater Ward.

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