Friday, October 15, 2004

Church Going Reduces Mortality By 25 Per Cent

Faith/Health Connection
By Catherine H. Toye, M.D.
Special Correspondent
October 5, 2004

The health effects of exercise, diet, cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, wearing seatbelts and excessive alcohol use are common knowledge. Less well known is the health effect of an unseen factor, faith, which can have as significant a consequence on survival as abstaining from smoking.

Hundreds of studies conducted over the past 30 years have shown that there is a relationship between our spiritual beliefs and practices and our health.

Greater religious involvement has been found to be associated with a longer lifespan and better quality of life. Religious involvement has been linked to a lower incidence of heart disease, cancer and cerebrovascular diseases such as stroke, the three leading causes of death in the United States, as well as to lower rates of hypertension, depression, dementia, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, cigarette smoking and other behaviors risky to health.

If you are skeptical about an association between faith and health, let me say that I have been in your company. Eight years of rigorous training at Duke prepared me to practice medicine as a board-certified specialist in diagnostic radiology. As is often the case, however, our more hard-won wisdom comes of life's experience rather than from formal education.

In the illustrious and long tradition of "best-laid plans of mice and men" you might say my near lifelong plans went "awry." The onset of a chronic disabling medical illness devastatingly ended my practice of medicine, but not what I was to learn about health.

Illness not only opened the door to faith after 21 years as an agnostic, but it allowed me to experience an unequivocal association between faith and health. That may seem a contradictory statement from someone disabled by chronic illness for the past 14 years but I recognize that my spiritual life has moderated the course of that illness. Faith, as a result, has left me with greater health and quality of life.

Can I prove it? No. Moreover, any self-respecting scientist would relegate my claim to the somewhat dismissive category of "anecdotal experience," but I know the association between faith and health is a real phenomenon. Beyond my personal conviction on the faith/health connection I've been amazed by the scientific data and statistics.

Longevity studies show that people who regularly attend religious services have longer lifespans (on average a 25 percent reduction in mortality rate) than those who didn't regularly attend services. To place that statistic into familiar perspective, it is the equivalent health risk of smoking versus not smoking.

I was surprised at such a large reduction in mortality rate but here is what entirely took me aback. That 25 percent statistic was already adjusted for greater social support and more healthy lifestyle choices such as less smoking, drinking and substance abuse (all of which beneficially affect health and are known to be associated with greater religious involvement.) Researchers were left unable to explain the 25 percent reduction in mortality.

It was the more intriguing to me because I knew firsthand that there was much more to the faith/health connection than the obvious. How can religion exert this mysterious effect on health?

The first mainstream scientific meeting on the relationship between religion and health was held at Duke in July 1999. Besides theologians and scientists, the conference included physicians interested in the study of the nervous, endocrine and immune systems as they interrelate with respect to mind-body interaction -- examining how our thinking, beliefs and feelings can directly impact health.

The conference at Duke explored the impact of stress on immune function. A leading theory on how faith may affect health relates to stress, both physical and psychological. How we handle stress over the course of our lifetime plays a significant role in health and quality of life. Our spiritual beliefs and practices may protect us from the effects of stress by changing how we perceive it and also by enabling or improving our ability to cope with it. Faith can provide a sense of meaning and purpose, integrating our lives with a greater sense of coherence. Faith can also give us the strength to live with the unavoidable stresses of living.

This monthly column will focus on advances in understanding the complex relationship between religion and health. Yet, the answer will always remain part mystery, at least to mortal comprehension. God can act in our lives in ways beyond our grasp. Augustine said it best: "Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature."

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Catherine H. Toye, M.D., completed her medical training at Duke and is the author of "My Children, Listen" (Caritas Communications Inc., $24), an account of her spiritual experience after a disabling chronic illness. Her e-mail address is ctoye@ctoye.com.

Copyright © 2004, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.