Thursday, July 16, 2015

Faith and Health - science

Chapter 17


My faith has always been a very private part of my life. Indeed, I am uncomfortable with public worship and prayer, which partially explains why I am a pastoral psychotherapist, rather than a more conventional clergyman, equipped with pulpit and congregation. All the same, I remain consistently connected to that which I consider the Divine. My conversations with God are both informal and frequent – much like one might have with a close friend. While I am not aware of any studies on my personal style of casual, ongoing contact and discussion with God, I have no doubts that it is personally effective.  
There is scientific evidence supporting a role for religion in physical health, and that those who have no faith are more prone to sickness and mortality than their spiritual counterparts. The Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press) documents nearly 1,200 studies done on the effects of faith on health, leading ultimately to the conclusion that practicing one’s faith improves health and increases longevity, even when taking into account other social/psychological differences. For example, one 16-year study examined mortality rates in 11 religious and 11 secular kibbutzim.[1] Although both communities were demographically matched and provided similar levels of social support, three times more people died in the secular kibbutzim compared to the religious kibbutzim.    
Here is an example, found easily on the vast science and medical search engine, Pubmed.[2]

Does religious observance promote health? Mortality in secular vs. religious kibbutzim in Israel.
J D Kark, G Shemi, Y Friedlander, O Martin, O Manor, and S H Blondheim
OBJECTIVES. This study assessed the association of Jewish religious observance with mortality by comparing religious and secular kibbutzim. These collectives are highly similar in social structure and economic function and are cohesive and supportive communities.
METHODS. In a 16-year (1970 through 1985) historical prospective study of mortality in 11 religious and 11 matched secular kibbutzim in Israel, 268 deaths occurred among 3900 men and women 35 years of age and older during 41347 person-years of observation.
RESULTS. Mortality was considerably higher in secular kibbutzim. Cox proportional hazards analysis was used to adjust for age and the matched design; rate ratios were 1.67 (95% confidence interval [CI]=1.17, 2.39) for men, 2.67 (95% CI=1.55, 4.60) for women, and 1.93 (95% CI=1.44, 2.59) overall. Kaplan-Meier survival analysis of birth cohorts confirmed the association. The lower mortality in religious kibbutzim was consistent for all major causes of death.
CONCLUSIONS. Belonging to a religious collective was associated with a strong protective effect not attributable to confounding by sociodemographic factors. Elucidation of mechanisms mediating this effect may provide etiologic insights and leads for intervention.

Personally, I have no doubts about the efficacy of my own faith in supporting my health, even without the confirmation from scientific studies. Keep in mind that these studies show the power of one’s faith to positively influence health – they do not show evidence for the existence of God from a scientific point of view. The realness of God is not within reach of scientific tools. How could one hope to measure the infinite, when the only tools available to science are finite?  What scientists do understand is that certain beliefs make us sick, and other beliefs keep us healthy – and may even have the power to heal us, regardless of scientific proof of God’s existence.
Faith and prayer are scientifically documented to help the one who knows he is being prayed for, as well as the one who is praying. There is a plethora of data saying that those who believe prayer will help them, and know they are being prayed for, may indeed get better. We don’t, however, have solid evidence supporting any effects in which the person who is being prayed for is not aware of the intercessory prayer on his behalf. Current research also does not support the idea that atheists should be told by their physicians to start praying. Both the originator of the prayer and the recipient of the prayer need to be believers if the prayer is to have maximum efficacy.
But a faith-based life is more than just physiological response to certain thinking patterns. Traditional religious beliefs often entail a variety of prescriptions on personal health: living a faith-based life often means not smoking, not abusing alcohol or drugs, driving more safely and generally living more responsibly.        
I mentioned earlier that people of faith tend to get sick less often, as shown by separate studies conducted at Duke, Dartmouth, and Yale Universities. Some statistics from these and similar studies:
  • People who never or rarely attended church showed a 1.87 increased risk of death over those who attended regularly (Hummer et al, 1999).
  • Heart patients were 14 times more likely to die following surgery if they did not participate in a religion (Larson and Larson, 2003).
  • Over the course of 7.5 years, those who attended religious services at least once a month had a 30-35% drop in mortality risk, compared to those who attended less frequently (Musick et al, 2003).
Additionally, those who are more religious tend to become depressed less often; and when they do become depressed, they recover more quickly from depression. Religion provides a "world view," or a perspective on problems, that helps people better cope with life's ups and downs. A faith-based world-view gives individuals a more hopeful, optimistic attitude, helping them triumph over difficult life changes and the stress that goes along with health challenges. Unless one has a religious belief system, it's hard to find purpose and meaning in getting sick, having chronic pain and losing loved ones.

A prospective study of hope, optimism, and health.
Scioli A, Chamberlin CM, Samor CM, Lapointe AB, Campbell TL, MacLeod AR, McLenon J.
The present investigation sought to distinguish hope from optimism in the context of a 10-wk. prospective study involving reports of health outcomes. Gottschalk's (1985) Hope Scale and Scheier and Carver's (1987) Life Orientation Test, which assesses optimism were given to subjects, along with a health questionnaire. Ten weeks later subjects were given a second health questionnaire. To rule out potential confounds, we included measures of neuroticism, depression, extroversion, and social desirability. After controlling for the effects of correlated confounds, we found that lower hope scores (but not optimism) were correlated with several dimensions of reported health, including frequency and severity of illness.

The separation between faith and medicine is breaking down. In 1999, 61 of America's 126 medical schools were offering spirituality and health courses, up from three in 1994. Duke University has established a Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, while Harvard Medical School attracts thousands of health professionals from across North America to its annual conference on "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine." A Yankelovich survey found that 94% of HMO professionals and 99% of family physicians agreed that "personal prayer, meditation, or other spiritual and religious practices" can boost medical treatment.
While yes, many important beliefs are not testable (that God exists and loves us,) others are. A plethora of new research indicates that an active faith is indeed linked with personal happiness, social welfare, health and longevity. And you can be sure that when religious claims are made, scientists will put those claims to the test.
It has not escaped my attention that the scientifically-measured advantages of a faith-based lifestyle are far more significant than the advantages of any of the drugs I have researched. I have often joked that our country needs a Chaplain General as well as a Surgeon General. In writing this book, I have insisted that any alternative treatment program I have discussed has scientific validation. So, if you are a person of faith, you can be assured that your faith is a powerful way to prevent illness, and is an effective treatment for disease with scientific validation. Pray for yourself and pray for others. It works!

Chapter 17 – Faith

Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter C, Levitsky S, Hill PC, et al. “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer.” American Heart Journal 151(2006) 934-942 H.
Hummer RA, Rogers RG, Nam CB, Ellison CG. “Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality.” Demography 36(1999):273-85.
Kark JD, Shemi G, Friedlander Y, Martin O, Manor O, Blondheim SH. “Does religious observance promote health? mortality in secular vs religious kibbutzim in Israel.” American Journal of Public Health 86(1996):341-6.
            Koenig HG, Hays JC, Larson DB, Georg LK, Cohen HJ, McCullough ME, Meador KG, Blazer DG. “Does religious attendance prolong survival? A six-year follow-up study of 3,968 older adults.” The Journals of Gerontology. Series A, Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 54(1999):M370-6.
            Koenig HG, McCullough ME, Larson DB. “Handbook of Religion and Health.” New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc, 2001.
Larson DB, Larson SB. “Spirituality's Potential Relevance to Physical and Emotional Health: A Brief Review of Quantitative Research.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 31(2003):37-53.
Mueller PS, Plevak DJ, Rummans TA. “Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice.”
Mayo Clinic Proceedings 76(2001):1225-1235.
Musick MA, House JS, Williams DR. “Attendance at religious services and mortality in a national sample.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 45(2004):198-213.
Oman D, Kurata JH, Strawbridge WJ, Cohen RD. “Religious attendance and cause of death over 31 years.” The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 32(2002):69.
Scioli A, Chamberlin CM, Samor CM, Lapointe AB, Campbell TL, Macleod AR, McLenon J. “A prospective study of hope, optimism, and health.” Psychological Reports 81(1997):723-33.
            Yankelovich Partners, Inc. “Spirituality and healing.” PA Today 3 Aug. 1998.                                                                                     

Sam and Bunny Sewell

[1]  Plural of 'kibbutz,' an Israeli collective community
[2], or see References for the chapter

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