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Sep 08

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Faith in God: Good for your health?

Can faith in God improve your health? A surprising number of medical experts say it might. These scientists claim certain desirable qualities might be associated with personal faith and spiritual practice. Benefits often mentioned include speedier recovery from illness, lower blood pressure, stronger immune system, positive mental health and longer life.

Insurance underwriters, call your office. Respectable medical schools study faith’s impact on health. Duke has a Center for the Study of Religion, Spirituality, and Health. Harvard teaches healthcare professionals about “Spirituality and Healing in Medicine.” Columbia doctors investigate religion’s part in healing.

John Templeton, Jr., pediatric surgeon and son of the famous financier/philanthropist, says, “People’s faith has a very strong influence over their well-being, their willingness to fight disease, and their ability to get well.” The John Templeton Foundation has made significant grants to explore this theme.

Duke psychiatrist Harold Koenig became interested in faith’s health implications during medical training. He was surprised to see a seemingly hopeless alcoholic recovering while relying on faith. An elderly couple with marital woes found joy and closeness through spiritual pursuits. Koenig renewed his own commitment to God and made scientific study of faith’s influence his life’s work.

DUKE magazine notes that Koenig and his associates reviewed over 1,100 studies.

“The vast majority of these studies show a relationship between greater religious involvement and better health,” Koenig observes. Few show no relationship and “virtually” none show negative relationship. Koenig admits many of the studies are imperfect. Critics note that correlation does not necessarily mean causation. It is difficult to control for multiple factors like age, gender, education and genetics.

If church involvement correlates with improved health, could community support or sensible living – rather than faith or God – be determinants? Only slight differences in improved health exist among devout Jews, Christians and Muslims. Koenig feels the keys are commitment to God and community, but not just any community. Churchgoers seem healthier than Monday Night Football gatherers and secular support group members.

Koenig stresses the “unconditional love” often sought in spiritual gatherings. He distinguishes “extrinsic” believers (who seek friendship, status or power) from “intrinsic” believers, whose faith permeates their lives and daily decisions and who enjoy greater health benefits. One is reminded of Jesus’ admonitions that mix love with intrinsic belief: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. trust in me.”

Georgetown University medical professor Dale Matthews, says the truth of his Christian faith rests not on its health benefits but on its founder: “If a study showed that Elvis worship was more beneficial to lowering blood pressure than Christianity, I wouldn’t change my belief in Jesus Christ.” Of course, not every patient who is prayed for recovers. Dealing with disappointment remains part of life.

Koenig continues his research with an optimistic bent: “Religion may be as significant as not smoking” for longevity, he claims. Many other health professionals sympathize.

Yankelovich research found that 99 percent of family physicians and 94 percent of HMO professionals felt prayer, meditation or other spiritual exercises could hasten or aid medical care for the ill.

Florida’s secretary of health Robert Brooks, a physician, feels faith-based organizations have a major healthcare role. Florida gives grants to churches for preventive health programs. Don’t be surprised to hear more about this topic, and soon.

By Rusty Wright

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