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Jewish World Review
Nov. 9, 2004
/ 25 Mar-Cheshvan 5765
Link between faith and health getting more attention
Religion, it appears, may be good for more than just your soul
Sheri Kaplan went to the doctor for pills. Instead, she tested positive for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS "the shock of my life.'' A virtual death sentence, she felt.
Ten years later, Kaplan, 39, is robust and confident she can manage her life-threatening illness.
Prayer and a spiritual awakening have kept her going, she says. "I had to throw myself into spirituality and G-d to get through this,'' Kaplan said.
Scientists are increasingly taking note of the connection between faith and health. Private and public money is beginning to flow in, with one branch of the National Institutes of Health more than doubling such research funding in the last five years. Researchers are studying a broad range of issues, trying to determine if faith can lengthen lives, strengthen the immune system, lower stress and blood pressure as well as decrease the odds of heart disease and dying from cancer.
"It gives people a sense of peace and optimism,'' said Dr. Gail H. Ironson, a University of Miami professor of psychology and psychiatry. "It gives them hope. They have less anxiety and depression.''
UM has two nationally recognized faculty members in the forefront of spirituality health research. Ironson, the professor of psychology and psychiatry, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough, a psychologist, were recently named to a $3.5 million research team to study how the spiritual transforms, particularly how it appears to keep many people healthier, even during life-threatening illnesses.
Ironson is studying HIV patients to see whether their spirituality helps slow the progression of the virus.
| STUDIES LOOK AT RELIGION AND HEALTH |
In a study published in last month's "Journal of the American Geriatrics Society,'' Duke University's Dr. Harold Koenig found that in a survey of 838 Duke hospital patients 50 and above, those who categorized themselves as religious or spiritual were less depressed, more cooperative and had ``better cognitive function and greater cooperativeness,'' |
In ``Handbook of Religion and Health'' (Oxford University Press, $72), researchers Koenig, David B. Larson and Michael E. McCullough who now teaches at the University of Miami found more than 1,200 studies had been conducted about the impact of religion on mental and physical health. Most reported positive findings.
Here is a sampling:
In a random national sample of 21,204 adults from 1987 to 1995, researchers found that of the 2,016 who had died that the religious lived an average of seven years longer. Those who never attended religious services lived to an average age of 75.3 compared with an average age of 81.9 for those who attended services once a week and 82.9 for people who went more than once a week.
In 1998, researchers published results of a random sample of 1,931 residents 55 and older living in Marin County, Calif. There were 454 deaths during a five-year follow-up period, and those who attended even an occasional service were 36 percent less likely to have died than those who never went.
In a 1996 study involving a random survey of 11,728 senior high school students in 130 high schools across the country, social scientists found the students who most frequently attended church or temple were less likely to get involved in unhealthy activities: 29 percent lower for cigarette smoking, 33 percent lower for marijuana smoking; 45 percent lower for drinking and 21 percent for other drugs.
The book also found that religious groups were successful in helping their members become healthier. In a 1992 study of the Baltimore Church High Blood Pressure Program, 188 women more than half taking high-blood pressure medication lost an average of six pounds in eight weeks of exercising and dieting. Their blood pressure was down as well.
Six months later, nearly two-thirds, 65 percent had maintained or even lost more weight.
McCullough is looking at the spiritual transformation across the life span of 1,200 people and how that affects their long-term health. For example, he plans to look at whether those who go back to religious services in midlife live longer than those who don't.
Previous research has shown that "the religious tend to reap benefits: They live longer and better,'' McCullough said.
A study led by Robert Hummer of the University of Texas at Austin looked at 21,204 adults selected randomly across the country from 1987 to 1995. Those who attended a religious service at least once a week lived on average almost seven years longer than those who didn't.
The study found an average life span of 75.3 years for non-attenders compared with 81.9 for those who attend services once a week and 82.9 for people who went more than once a week.
Ironson found people didn't have to go to formal services to get a health benefit.
For the last seven years, Ironson has studied how Kaplan and more than 500 other HIV/AIDS patients most from Miami-Dade and Broward counties in Florida cope with their illness. Her studies involve about 70 percent men, 30 percent women, some of whom have been HIV-positive since the early 1980s.
She found that having faith in God or a sense of peace lowers the stress hormone cortisol and has been linked to the long-term survival of HIV/AIDS patients, she said.
Kaplan, who is Jewish, said she never thought to go to religious services she didn't regularly go as a child. But when Kaplan found out she had HIV, she began delving into spirituality, including praying frequently.
"I pray to G-d for support, for health, for strength,'' she said. "Sometimes I wonder, `Does He really hear me?' Then He or She always comes through.''
For decades, doctors and scientists shied away from considering that the spiritual might have an impact on health. Indeed, many doctors say Americans shouldn't equate prayer with Prozac.
Dr. Richard Sloan, a Columbia University professor of behavioral medicine, said the idea of researching the link between the spiritual and health is misleading: People, for example, shouldn't think religion will prevent them from getting cancer or heart disease or, indeed, help them live longer, he advised.
"It's not like going to a vending machine: You put a coin in and get another year of life,'' he said.
Nonetheless, the spiritual-health hypothesis has piqued the interest of many in the scientific community and research money has begun to flow.
Over the past five years, the federal National Institute of Health's Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine has more than doubled the dollars spent on research on religion, spirituality and meditation from $1.4 million in fiscal 1999 to $3.2 million in fiscal 2003, said Dr. Stephen E. Straus, director of the center.
More than a fourth of all research dollars for mind-body research goes into studying how religion, spirituality and meditation affect people.
"We've begun to understand how the mind interacts with the body,'' Straus said. "The mind does send chemical messages to the body.''
Studies have shown that positive attitudes strengthen the immune system, which helps fight off infection. Meanwhile, depression and stress lower resistance, Straus said.
Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a Duke University professor and psychiatrist who in 1998 started the country's first Center for Religion/Spirituality and Health, said his center has studied a wide range of topics, finding that faith lowers blood pressure, helps the hospitalized cope with their illness and is linked to longevity.
"Faith and medicine work beautifully together,'' he said.
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Donna Gehrke-White is a reporter for The Miami Herald. To comment, please click here.
© 2004, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services