Harold Koenig, MD
Duke University Medical Center
People who know the benefits of good nutrition, exercise and stress reduction often overlook another potentially very potent health factor -- spirituality.
There's now compelling evidence that praying and participating in weekly worship services are associated with a reduced risk for serious illness and with an extended lifespan.
In fact, researchers now believe that religious faith may be roughly equivalent to not smoking when it comes to conferring health benefits.
I'm not talking about miracles, faith healing or divine intervention. Rather, the thoughts and actions of religious life seem to enhance health in ways that make scientific sense.
A LONG, HEALTHY LIFE
The best evidence for the power of faith is also the simplest -- religious people live longer. There's plenty of solid evidence to back up this statement.
In one ongoing study, University of California researchers have followed 5,286 men and women in Alameda, California, for nearly 30 years.
What they've found: Individuals who attended worship services at least once a week were 36% less likely to die during the study than were those who went less often.
Even after researchers accounted for other factors that often go along with religious faith -- lower alcohol consumption, better social support, etc. -- the death rate among the religious people was 23% lower than that among their less religious peers.
This landmark study has been corroborated repeatedly. In one study involving 4,000 adults in North Carolina, religious observance was associated with a 28% reduction in the death rate.
Perhaps even more important, being religious can add vigor to these extra years. A study of 2,812 elderly Connecticut residents found that those who worshiped weekly were significantly more likely to live on their own and be free of disabilities.
RELIGION AND THE HEART
Faith may offer powerful protection against heart attack. In part, it may do so by helping keep blood pressure down.
The North Carolina study also found that high blood pressure was 40% less common among those who regularly attended religious services and prayed or read the Bible.
An Israeli study, appearing in the journal Cardiology in 1993, followed more than 10,000 men for 23 years. Researchers noted that there were 20% fewer deaths from heart attack among those who were most religious.
In another study that involved 232 patients, those who "lacked strength and comfort from religion" were more than three times more likely to die within six months following heart surgery.
RELIGION AND HOSPITALIZATION
Religious people are hospitalized less frequently than nonreligious people. And when religious people must be hospitalized, they tend to have shorter stays.
A survey of 542 men and women, average age 70, found that those who attended religious services regularly were almost half as likely to have been hospitalized during the previous year.
Hospital patients who identified themselves as being religious went home in half the time that it took similar patients with no religious affiliation.
WHAT FAITH CAN DO
Religion certainly doesn't guarantee good health. But it does seem to promote...
- Good habits. Religious people tend to exercise more and smoke less.
- Social support. Members of a congregation are part of a community. They're involved in the lives of others and feel cared about. Their marriages are more likely to last.
- Reduced stress. If you believe in a benevolent God, you probably see the world as being largely on your side. The problems that befall us -- big and small -- seem easier to bear.
In addition, the act of prayer has been shown to trigger what Harvard researcher Herbert Benson, MD, has dubbed the "relaxation response." That's a state of deep relaxation in which blood pressure, heart rate and breathing rate decrease.
IF YOU'RE ALREADY RELIGIOUS
Magnify the health-promoting power of your faith by making it a central part of your life...
- Attend services more frequently, and get involved in activities such as prayer or Bible study. Get to know your fellow congregants. Reach out to those who are in need of help.
- Join other congregants in volunteer programs that help the poor, homeless, etc.
- Include private prayer or reflection in your daily schedule. At bedtime, look back over the day's events, to understand them in the context of faith.
- Take a few minutes each day to pray with your family. While you're together, ask about conflicts in their lives.
- Read inspiring passages from religious writings. You'll find comfort and encouragement.
IF YOU'RE NOT RELIGIOUS
You can't simply "practice" religion for your health, the way you might start exercising or adopt a low-fat diet. But you can open your mind to the benefits of faith...
- Be honest in your search for meaning in your life. Discuss God with religious people whose principles, behavior and intelligence you respect.
- If you've had negative experiences with religion, reexamine them. Discuss your feelings with a trusted friend or counselor.
- Read the writings of people of deep faith -- Martin Buber, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Albert Schweitzer and any other people you find particularly inspiring.
- Practice meditation. Pausing for 30 minutes of introspection and reflection is deeply relaxing... and may open the door to spiritual experiences.
- Attend religious services at a church, synagogue or mosque that is truly alive and involved with its community. Speak with members of the congregation.
- Do good deeds. Volunteering, doing charity work, watching out for the well-being of others are helpful -- and healthful -- no matter what you believe in.
“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. “
Have you read your BIBLE today?