How Faith Affects Our Health – Tantalising Scientific Research

by Chiropractors Brighton on March 11, 2011

Chiropractors Brighton and Hove

On witnessing the recent outpourings of emotion after the earthquake and the subsequent numbers of people attending  prayer meetings in Christchurch, New Zealand , it reminded me of  an article I had seen recently about prayer and faith and it’s effect on our health.

A growing yet largely unnoticed body of scientific work, amassed over the past thirty years, shows that faith is medically, socially and psychologically beneficial.

We know there have been many unhealthy and unwholesome things done in the name of religion – this blog post is not about religion but about the value of faith and spirituality in regard to our general health.

Read some of the interesting research:

  • In 2006, the American Society of Hypertension established that church-goers have lower blood pressure.
  • Likewise, in 2004, scholars at the University of California, Los Angeles, suggested that college students involved in religious activities are more likely to have better mental and emotional health than those who do not.
  • Meanwhile, in 2006, population researchers at the University of Texas discovered that the more often you attend spiritual services the longer you live.
  • Attendance is associated with adult mortality in a graded fashion: there is a seven-year difference in life expectancy between those who never attend church and those who attend weekly.’
  • Exactly the same outcome was recently reported in the American Journal of Public Health, which studied nearly 2,000 older Californians for five years. Those who attended spiritual services were 36% less likely to die during this half-decade than those who didn’t.
  • Even those who attended a place of worship irregularly — implying a less than ardent faith — did better than those who never attended.
  • Pretty impressive. But there’s more; so much more that it’s positively surreal.
  • In 1990, the American Journal of Psychiatry discovered believers with broken hips were less depressed, had shorter hospital stays and could even walk further when they were discharged compared to their similarly broken-hipped and hospitalised non faith peers.
  • It’s not just hips. Scientists have revealed that those with a faith recover from breast cancer quicker than non-believers; have better outcomes from coronary disease and rheumatoid arthritis; and are less likely to have children with meningitis.
  • Intriguing research in 2002 showed that believers have more success with IVF than non-believers.
  • A 1999 study found that going to a service or saying prayers actively strengthened your immune system.
  • These medical benefits accrue even if you adjust for the fact that believers are less likely to smoke, drink or take drugs.
  • And faith doesn’t just heal the body; it salves the mind, too. In 1998, the American Journal of Public Health found that depressed patients with a strong ‘intrinsic faith’ (a deep personal belief, not just a social inclination to go to a place of worship) recovered 70% faster than those who did not have strong faith.
  • Another study, in 2002, showed that prayer reduced ‘adverse outcomes in heart patients’.
  • In 2008, Professor Andrew Clark of the Paris School of Economics and Doctor Orsolya Lelkes of the European Centre for Social Welfare Policy and Research conducted a vast survey of Europeans. They found that those with a faith, compared to those without, record less stress, are better able to cope with losing jobs and divorce, are less prone to suicide, report higher levels of self-esteem, enjoy greater ‘life purpose’ and report being more happy overall.
  • What is stunning about this research is that the team didn’t go looking for this effect — it came to them unexpectedly. ‘We originally started the research to work out why some European countries had more generous unemployment benefits than others,’ says Professor Clark.
  • But as they went on, the pattern of beneficial faith presented itself. ‘Our analysis suggested that those with a faith suffered less psychological harm from unemployment than the non-religious.  Those with a faith had higher levels of life satisfaction.’
  • So what’s going on? How does having a faith work this apparent magic?
  • One of the latest surveys to suggest that those people  with a faith are happier than those without was conducted by Professors Chaeyoon Lim and Robert Putnam, from Harvard, and published last year. They discovered that many of the health benefits of having a faith  materialise only if you go to a place of worship regularly.  Going to a friendly church, temple or mosque gives you a strong social network and a ready-made support group, which in turn gives you a more positive outlook on life — and offers vital help in times of need. The Harvard scientists were so startled by their findings that they considered altering their own religious behaviour. As Professor Lim said: ‘I am not a religious person, but . . . I personally began to think about whether I should go to church. It would make my mum happy.’  But if the ‘congregation’ effect is one explanation for the good health of churchgoers, it’s not the only one. Other surveys have found that intrinsic faith is also important.
  • For instance, a study of nearly 4,000 older adults for the U.S. Journal of Gerontology revealed that atheists had a notably increased chance of dying over a six-year period than the faithful.
  • Crucially, people with a faith lived longer than atheists even if they didn’t go regularly to a place of worship. This study clearly suggests there is a benefit in pure faith alone — perhaps this faith works by affording a greater sense of inner purpose and solace in grief.
  • All this will come as no surprise to many students of genetics and evolution, who have long speculated that spirituality and  faith might be hard- wired into the human mind.
  • For instance, twin studies (research on identical siblings who are separated at birth) show that faith is a heritable characteristic: if one twin has spiritual tendencies the other is likely to be a believer as well, even when raised by different parents.
  • Prayer: Studys have found that even those with a small connection to religion can feel the benefits of it.
  • Neurologists are making exciting progress in locating the areas of the brain, primarily the frontal cortex, ‘responsible’ for faith and belief.   This research even has its own name: neurotheology.
  • Why might we be hard-wired to have a faith and belief?  Because, according to the researhers,  faith makes us happier and healthier and we were designed to be healthy!  Our bodies are programmed to be healthy – that is, they are always seeking homoeostasis – a state of balance/health.

Interestingly, some researchers decided to change their lives and explore faith for themselves after being exposed to this compelling evidence.

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March 11, 2011 at 10:13 am

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