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Believing and healing

Healthy people often credit their religious beliefs for their hardiness. But what about those whose health takes a downward turn? Does spirituality mend as well as protect? If, like the song says, you’re “looking for a reason to believe” that you can overcome a serious health setback, consider:

  • At Duke University, heart disease and stroke patients with higher “religiosity” scores tended to recover more quickly than fellow patients who professed having few religious beliefs.
  • In Israel, a 23-year study of 10,000 men found that those with strong religious beliefs had a reduced risk of heart disease.
  • A six-year study of 4,000 healthy Christians in the U.S., ages 65 and up, found that those who engaged in any spiritual activity—prayer, church-going, meditation or reading Scripture—reduced their risk of death by 50 percent over those who did not engage in such activities.
  • A 1988 study of 151 older coronary bypass surgery patients, taken a year after their operations, found significant reductions in depression and distress among those who turned to prayer for hope and support.
  • In general, people who attend worship services at least once a week live eight years longer than those who don’t, according to the ongoing National Health Interview Survey. The study also found that the nonspiritual group had an 87 percent higher risk of dying from all causes during a nine-year follow-up.
  • Researchers at Dartmouth Medical Center in New Hampshire studied elderly patients after cardiac surgery and found that those who had depended on faith to help them cope had a mortality rate one-third lower than other patients.
  • In another study of 442 patients, those who said they were highly or moderately spiritual reported less pain and better overall health than their counterparts who reported low levels of spirituality.
  • A meta-analysis by Beth Israel Hospital in New York of 131 studies on prayer concluded that at least 56 studies showed prayer having significant positive health effects. Benefits included reduced stress, depression and high blood pressure, and fewer complications from illness.

The possible health benefits of spirituality are undergoing intense study. While awaiting more findings, doctors and counselors are recommending soul-searching, staying close to loved ones and being positive in times of crisis. Spiritual values such as love, trust and optimism could provide the healing that patients really need to fully recover.