BOSTON -- Christian Scientists seem to die younger than most people, casting doubt on their reliance on prayer rather than medicine for healing, a researcher reported Thursday.
A study comparing more than 5,000 Christian Scientists to nearly 30,000 non-Christian Scientists found women Christian Scientists tend to die four years sooner and men two years sooner than non-Christian Scientists.
The findings question the church's spiritual approach to healing and provide ammunition for challenging Christian Scientists' legal right to shun medicine, said William Simpson, a former church member who conducted the study.
'The method that Christian Scientists employ to heal themselves seems to be significantly less effective then the method the normal population uses to heal itself,' said Simpson, an assistant professor of mathematics at Emporia State University in Kansas.
'These results are particularly interesting in view of the fact that Christian Scientists are forbidden to either smoke or drink because 'the use of tobacco or intoxicating drink is not in harmony with Christian Science,'' he added.
Nathan Talbot, a spokesman for the Boston-based First Church of Christ, Scientist, said the study was 'marred by several misleading assumptions which significantly affect its conclusions.
'Frankly, we don't feel that the slim and indirect evidence compiled in this study provides a valid basis for saying that Christian Scientists 'live longer' or 'do not live longer' than others,' Talbot said in a written statement.
There are about 3,000 Christian Science churches wordwide, including 1,945 in the United States. Founded in 1866 by Mary Baker Eddy, the church and its followers support prayer over medicine for fighting illness.
Several court cases are pending around the country challenging the right of Christian Scientists to withhold standard medical care from their children.
'I think as a society we need to re-examine the exemptions that Christian Scientists have been given,' Simpson said in a telephone interview.
Simpson compared the overall death rate of 2,630 male and 2,928 female Christian Scientists who graduated from the predominantly Christian Scientist Principia College in Elsah, Ill., from 1934 to 1983 to that of 17,753 male and 12,105 female non-Christian Scientists who graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence during that period.
'Graduates from Principia College had a significantly higher death rate than the control population,' Simpson wrote in a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
'If Christian Science healing methods work as well as medical healing methods, one would expect to see Christian Scientists live as long as non-Christian Scientists,' he said. 'However, this study has shown that this is not the case.'
Previous research found the age of death of Christian Scientists in the Seattle area was slightly below average for the state of Washington, and their cancer death rate was double the national average, Simpson said.
Talbot said the new study was based on incomplete school records that easily could have distorted the findings. The study also made unreliable assumptions that students at both schools were comparable and the Principia College students were all Christian Scientists, he said.
'One wonders whether the (medical journal) would have published this study at all if its results had favored Christian Science. Certainly, if that had been the case, the (journal) review board would have asked much harder questions,' he said.