As she moved through the crowded room, Ms. Norma gave a lot of hugs.
"Give it up," said the spry 84-year-old, arms open wide as she moved through racks of clothes to embrace other volunteers and patrons.
Ms. Norma is Norma Hurt, of the East Side, a volunteer for almost 19 years at the United Methodist Free Store on the South Side.
"I get so much love here," Hurt said of the store inside Church and Community Development for All People. "I get it and I give it back."
That love keeps her going, and volunteering at the store rejuvenates her and gives her energy — so much energy that she seems closer to 64 than 84.
A recent study hints at the health benefits Hurt and others get from volunteering and attending church services regularly. Hurt attends Christ United Methodist Church.
Ohio State researchers in June pored over hundreds of obituaries from across the country. They found that people with religious affiliations listed in their obituaries lived about four years longer than those who were not religious. They theorize that it was in part due to the social support and volunteering among the religious.
"We were stunned by the size of the relationship between religion and longevity. It’s years," said Laura Wallace, lead author of the study and a graduate student and Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State. "It was a matter of four to six years of people’s lives."
Wallace did the study with Baldwin Way, an associate professor of psychology at Ohio State, and two others. Way and Wallace each had looked at obituaries for health determinants, but neither was expecting religion to have as much of an effect on life span as it did.
An obituary is a good measure of religious involvement because it’s third-party reporting, the two said. Usually, a family member writes the obituary. His or her account of a loved one’s attendance may be more trustworthy than the individual’s, who might be more likely to embellish it.
"On average, people are living about to their mid-70s," Wallace said, but being religious could take someone to their early 80s. The extra life span could be lowered based on gender and marital status, the researchers said, but could range from three to nine years.
Way’s father initially inspired him to do an academic study on obituaries. When Way visited his father at his home in Seattle in 2010 his dad was poring over the local paper, looking at the obituaries to plan out his week in case he needed to attend a funeral. Way realized that obituaries don’t contain just service times, but also quite a bit of health information.
"The best measure of health is mortality. It’s a pretty hard and fast outcome. You’re either dead or you’re not," Way said.
There’s also information about religious affiliation or lack thereof, marriage, activities, age and more — all of which factor into mortality, he said.
Way’s father, for example, is 85 and has outlived most of his friends. Way laughed as he said, yes, his father regularly attends church.
Steven Richardson, president of the Columbus Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has heard of other studies coming to similar conclusions about religious affiliation.
"I think religion as a whole, regardless of denomination, has increased longevity," Richardson said, adding that health codes of certain religions could prolong life as well. For example, if a religion prohibits drinking coffee or tea or having alcohol or tobacco, that could have an effect on health and lifespan, he said, as did the study’s authors.
Richardson also thinks volunteering can help a lot, and, as a family physician, he recommends it to patients suffering from depression.
"I encourage them to volunteer, to provide service to others," he said. "It helps them get out of themselves. ... Who doesn’t come out of service feeling joy, feeling happier? I think when we’re happy, we live longer."