Saturday, November 05, 2005

Religious Belief & Health Benefits

NEW YORK, OCT. 29, 2005 ( Religious belief may not only be good for our spiritual health; it may also bring positive effects for the body. With certain regularity, studies appear on the scene indicating that prayer or regular participation in religious services can assist believers' health.

Not everyone agrees with such studies. Some researchers point to methodological failures in various studies that purport to show a correlation between religion and health benefits. Even the studies themselves warn that it is hard to pinpoint the precise relationship between the two.

Still, the number of reports showing positive effects is substantial. On June 9 the Web site Science and Theology News reported that Canadian and Israeli researchers found that religious practice may slow the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

"We learned that Alzheimer's patients with higher levels of spirituality or higher levels of religiosity may have a significantly slower progression of cognitive decline," said the author of the study, Dr. Yakir Kaufman, director of neurology at Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem.

The results were presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology. "This work is consistent with recent studies showing that prayer, spirituality or religiosity is correlated with better mental and physical health," commented Dr. Michael Rayel, chief of psychiatry at the Dr. G.B. Cross Memorial Hospital in Clarenville, Newfoundland.

The researchers assessed 68 people between ages 49 and 94. The data revealed that higher levels of religiosity and private religious practices were significantly correlated with slower rates of cognitive decline.

But whether spiritual activity slows Alzheimer's more effectively than other types of mental activity may be the "$64,000 question," cautioned University of Pennsylvania radiology professor Dr. Andrew Newberg. "One of the big questions ultimately becomes whether or not the researchers can differentiate the positive effects of spirituality from other activities."

At the same meeting another group of researchers, from the University of Chicago, reported that African- Americans who strongly believe in God were less likely to be depressed than nonbelievers, the Chicago Sun-Times reported April 14. In the same vein, Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, said that religion helps provide a sense of hope, peace and well-being, which in turn can reduce health-damaging stress hormones.

The Sun-Times article noted, however, that Dr. Richard Sloan of Columbia University cast doubt on the reports. He said that many studies on religion and health "contain significant methodological flaws that render their conclusions suspect."

Faith and medical schools

But the possibility of a positive effect is receiving greater attention by doctors. Two-thirds of the 125 medical schools in the United States now include courses on spirituality and faith, compared with just three in 1992, according to the Web site of the John Templeton Foundation.

The foundation is funding research into the area of spirituality and health. As well, it awards monetary prizes annually to U.S. medical schools in order to encourage the development, teaching and evaluation of courses that examine the integral role of faith and spirituality in patient care.

Some studies point to a general reduction in mortality risk for those who attend religious services at least weekly, the Wall Street Journal reported May 3. The studies have received little attention due to skepticism among scientists, the Journal noted.

But study of the issue led one skeptical expert, Lynda Powell, to change her mind. Powell, a professor of preventive medicine at Chicago's Rush University Medical Center and a non-churchgoer, was asked in 2001 by the National Institutes of Health to head a panel of three scientists to review the medical literature on the link between religion and health.

The panel did not find evidence that religion would help people once they are ill, concluded the report, published in the January 2003 journal American Psychologist.

But their examination of studies relating church attendance to health was different. The panel, according to the Wall Street Journal, reported that the studies showed a 25% lower mortality rate for those who attend religious services at least weekly. It seems that participation in services promotes a variety of behaviors with health benefits. These behaviors include meditation, participation in a social network, and adherence to a set of values that discourage things such as smoking and infidelity.

Praying for others

The issue of whether praying for the sick leads to improved health has been debated in past years. On July 15 the Washington Post reported that a study of more than 700 heart patients showed that those who had people praying for them from a distance, and without their knowledge, were no less likely to suffer a major complication, end up back in the hospital or die.

Some studies have argued that such prayers can have beneficial effects, but the Post noted that they have been criticized for methodological flaws.

The article reported on the Mantra II study, carried out by a team at the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, headed by cardiologist Mitchell Krucoff. It involved 748 patients who underwent treatment for heart problems at nine hospitals around the country between 1999 and 2002.

Researchers asked 12 congregations of various Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists around the world to pray for some of the patients. Other patients were not prayed for (presumably). Neither the patients nor their doctors knew whether someone was praying for them. The patients were followed for six months, but the researchers found no difference between the groups.

Krucoff did say, however, that he did not want people to think the researchers were critical of prayer. "This study gives us a sense of where there might be therapeutic benefit that might be worth pursuing in future trials," he said.

Body and soul

The Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with the question of faith and bodily health, in the section on the anointing of the sick. In No. 1509 it observes that the Church has received the charge "Heal the sick!" (Matthew 10:8) from the Lord.

The Church complies with this injunction by taking care of the sick "as well as by accompanying them with her prayer of intercession." The text notes that the Church "believes in the life-giving presence of Christ, the physician of souls and bodies. This presence is particularly active through the sacraments, and in an altogether special way through the Eucharist, the bread that gives eternal life and that St. Paul suggests is connected with bodily health."

But in the preceding number the Catechism notes that "even the most intense prayers do not always obtain the healing of all illnesses." For this reason St. Paul states that we must learn from the Lord that "my grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness," and that the sufferings to be endured can mean that "in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his Body, that is, the Church" (2 Corinthians 12:9; Colossians 1:24).

In fact, No. 1505 observes that Christ, during his public ministry, did not heal all the sick. And the physical healings he did carry out "announced a more radical healing: the victory over sin and death through his Passover." The Catechism then notes: "On the cross Christ took upon himself the whole weight of evil and took away the 'sin of the world,' of which illness is only a consequence."

The Catechism concludes: "By his passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to him and unite us with his redemptive Passion."