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Keep The Faith And Keep Your Health
March 29, 2002

By Rhonda B. Graham
InteliHealth News Service

For 20 years, social epidemiologist Jeff Levin, Ph.D.,
M.P.H., has been collecting data to see if there's a link
between faith and health.

"About 80 percent to 90 percent of these studies show there
is something positive going on. We're swimming in empirical

Among those documenting the case is Harold G. Koenig,
M.D., associate professor of medicine at the Duke University
Medical Center: "Our studies have shown those who benefit
most are those who both attend religious services and
practice personal belief at home such as reading religious
literature and prayer," he says.

According to his research as director of the Center for the
Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, Dr. Koenig, who
also leads seminars on the on the subject for the Harvard
Medical School Continuing Medical Education program, has

  • People who regularly attend church service, pray individually, and read the Bible are 40 percent less likely to have diastolic hypertension than those who seldom participate in these religious activities.
  • People who attend religious services regularly may have stronger immune systems than their less-religious counterparts. Those who never or rarely attend church or synagogue tend to have the highest levels of interleukin-6, perhaps indicating a weakened or overactive immune system.
  • People who attend church regularly are hospitalized less often and leave the hospital sooner than people who never or rarely participate in religious services.
  • The deeper a person's religious faith, the less likely he or she is to be crippled by depression during and after hospitalization for physical illness.Religious people have healthier lifestyles. People who attend church at least weekly have about one-third the rate of alcohol abuse and are about one-third as likely to smoke than those who seldom participate in congregational worship.
  • Religious youth show significantly lower levels of drug and alcohol abuse, premature sexual involvement, and criminal delinquency than their non-religious peers. They also are less likely to express suicidal thoughts or make actual attempts on their lives.

Levin, who has received grants from many sources, including the National Institutes of Health, found that faith is an especially potent source of well-being.

"The big challenge for us is to answer the why question, what does all of this mean?"

In his recently published book, "God, Faith and Health, " Levin examined more than 200 studies on faith and health. Among the common links are:

  • On the average, people who are more religious tend to have healthier lifestyles.  
  • Attending church, mosque or synagogue provides a social structure. "Being around other people you receive support. We know that social support is good for people's health," he says.
  • The practice of prayer, meditation or public worship services elicits positive emotions. A variety of new scientific research suggests that our emotions can lead to psychological changes that benefit our health.   
  • New research on optimism and hope is suggesting a possible placebo effect that promotes healing.

The studies Levin looked at involved a range of ages, ethnic backgrounds and religious affiliations. They involved a variety of research methods, including representative samples, longitudinal and psychiatric studies, as well as analysis by condition, such as lung disease or cancer.

Levin and Dr. Koenig are part of a growing movement to quantify the impact of religion on health.

Others are working on the subject too. For instance, a recent Columbia University research report concluded that people with religious faith are markedly less likely to abuse alcohol and illegal drugs than non-believers.

In 2001 the Harvard Divinity School launched "The Religion Health and Healing" initiative to study the intersection of healing and religion across the world's cultures.

The university's Pluralism Project has joined with Boston Medical Center's Healing Landscape project to explore the extent of religious healing in an American city. The project is producing a data bank of information about the diversity of religious healing practices in urban America.

While research supports a connection between faith and physical well-being, the evidence is stronger for the benefits of faith on emotional and mental health, says Dr. Koenig, author of seven books on the subject, including the most recent, "Spirituality in Patient Care."

For most people, faith's power involves a healing of the intangible spirit, and of relationships with others, he adds.

In fact, illness tends to bring spirituality to the surface.

"As people become sicker and struggle with more suffering they can become very deeply spiritual," Dr. Koenig says. "They may look sick or be struggling with depression, but they may be deeply spiritual and have a very strong faith connection."

This is because without faith, illness and suffering is devoid of meaning for patients and their loved ones, Dr. Koenig says. "It gives these difficult conditions a sense of purpose, that somehow a good thing can result. That God can transform this horrible situation into something good, or it can have a benefit to those around them."

The research suggests that intensity of belief and practice is an affecting characteristic in the relationship between health and spiritual practice. In one study patients were asked to rank the importance of their faith, they were given a range of possible answers from not important to strongly important.

"There is some evidence from some of these types of questions, that people who answer in the stronger category tend to do better in health and in psychological well being," Levin says.

Yet the research does not suggest that non-religious people can't also be healthy.

"There are unquestionably people who do not practice religion and are perfectly healthy and get along just fine. And there are people who are very religious and suffer illnesses," Levin says.

But with research unquestionably documenting a health benefit for members of religious groups, Levin concludes: "Spirituality in the broadest sense can be a vitally powerful resource in the lives of many human beings for those who participate in spiritual activities on a regular basis."

Link to original article on IntelliHealth site


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