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Sunday Reflections: The Relationship Between Faith and Health, Part I

Does prayer and active church participation have a positive effect on physical health and well being?

By Rev. Susan Schwartz

New Year’s Day is here and gone. Bubbly and fireworks and maybe even good intentions are now a thing of the past. Did you make resolutions for the New Year? Beginning a new year is a great time to turn over a new leaf. Yes, I know, many of us have done it so many times and nothing changes that we just give up. Often, the focus is on spending, eating, and exercise because we spend too much, eat the wrong things, and don’t exercise enough. Sound familiar? Well, I’d like to suggest a different focus.

When I was one of the chaplains at West Penn Hospital, our staff talked about the relationship between faith and health. Research was under way about the effects of prayer and active church participation on physical health and well being and we were talking about the implications. What was so fascinating is that so often religion and faith are relegated to superstition and ignorance, but here were medical professionals searching for facts. What were they finding out?

One of the most succinct reports on the studies that I have seen comes from piece based on work of Thomas Oxman, M.D., et al, as reported in Consumer Reports on Health (June, 1998) and Singer Health Reports. I share it with you here:

CAN SPIRITUALITY IMPROVE YOUR HEALTH?

In the past three years the number of American Medical Schools offering courses on spiritual issues has risen from 3 to more than 40.

Why?

Observational studies have linked religion and spirituality with a reduced risk of disease, faster recovery from surgery, and a lower overall death rate. Although it is hard to prove that spiritual beliefs result in better health, the following studies show there is a definite link between spirituality and health.

There have been some 300 studies done so far on the link between spirituality and health. Of those, roughly three-fourths have found positive effects. Some of the studies have shown that people with a religious commitment may have fewer symptoms of mental and physical disorders, and make fewer doctors’ visits than other people. Other studies have found those who are spiritually inclined have reduced risk of diseases including cancer and heart disease.

A 28-year California study indicated people who went to weekly religious services had a one-third lower death rate than those who attended less often. After controlling for lifestyle factors, such as smoking and drinking, the researchers still found a one-fourth lower death rate.

A Duke University study found that 1,700 elderly people who attended weekly religious services were half as likely as non-attendees to have high levels of a protein linked to diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, coronary disease, and osteoporosis.

Researchers from Northwestern University found that women recovered faster after hip replacement when they had strong religious beliefs compared to those who didn’t.

A study led by Dartmouth involving 232 open-heart surgery patients found 21 non-religious patients died while the 37 “deeply religious” patients had lived.

Besides getting well more quickly and living longer, research indicates that religious people may generally live healthier lives.

In one study of about 3,000 people, the weekly churchgoers had about half the alcohol-abuse risk of those who attended less regularly. Other studies have shown that religious teenagers are much less likely to drink or use drugs than less religious teens.

Of course, this research is over 10 years old, and our world has changed in that period of time, but more current work still suggests some kind of relationship between faith/religion/spirituality and health.

Hmmmmm.  Does this suggest to you a resolution for the New Year? More to come next week.

The Rev. Susan Schwartz is pastor of St. John Lutheran Church in Swissvale and Hope Lutheran Church in Forest Hills.

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