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Religion Can Be Good Medicine, Survey Finds

But critic says it's a leap of faith to believe that

TUESDAY, Oct. 2, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Adding still another voice to the ongoing debate about the link between health and spirituality, an examination of two decades of research concludes that religion can make you healthier and doctors should add it to their treatment process.

It is good medicine for a doctor to see if a patient has religious beliefs and, if so, to encourage the patient to talk about them and rely on them, says Dr. Mark Su. He is presenting his survey findings tomorrow at the annual scientific assembly of the American Academy of Family Physicians in Atlanta. "I ask patients about their religious backgrounds, practices and community. I see it as a relationship builder. It leads to meaningful discussions, and it creates a bond," Su says.

Su, a second-year resident in the Tufts University Family Practice Residency program who describes himself as a nondenominational Christian, has amassed a wealth of research pointing to a link between good health and religious commitment.

In examining 212 studies, mostly Judeo-Christian, done over the past 20 years, he found: 75 percent reported a positive benefit; 17 percent showed mixed or no effect, and 7 percent demonstrated a negative impact on health. Health areas in which religion had the most positive impact included such serious ailments as cancer, heart disease and hypertension, according to his findings.

However, at least one critic doubts that these studies and their conclusions are valid.

Richard P. Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University in New York City, says, "Studies such as these are almost always badly constructed. And even the few that are well done were conducted for other purposes and just happen to measure religious practices relating to health. There are no studies about physician recommendations or practices relating to religion. So drawing any kind of conclusions about that would be a leap of faith."

Among the research Su cites as making positive links are:

  • A Harvard Medical School study that found repetitive prayer and rejection of intrusive thoughts good for hypertension, irregular heartbeat, chronic pain, insomnia and depression;
  • Several studies on the positive effects of following religions that promote avoidance of tobacco, red meat, illicit sex and alcohol;
  • A category of studies that seemed to show the healing potential of the feelings of peacefulness connected with religious faith.

Purdue (Ind.) University sociology professor Kenneth Ferraro, who studies the link between religion and health, says there are links between healthy behaviors and being religious -- with the exception of obesity. "Obesity is prevalent is some faiths," Ferraro says.

He also says that it's good if a doctor can help a patient activate religious resources. "When one faces a crisis in one's life, religion can provide a network of individuals who are able to help with practical things like driving to the hospital or caring for the house while you're away."

But he's cautious about the sensitive nature of religious beliefs. "A physician should ask first. If the patient gives some inclination of interest, then I think it is wholly appropriate to use spirituality and religion as a resource. But if the patient isn't interested, then the physician should back away," he says.

What To Do

Stevan Lars Nielsen, a clinical psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah and author of a new book, Counseling and Psychotherapy with Religious Persons, advises patients to let their doctors know if they want to make their religion part of their care.

Nielsen says most doctors will agree and even share their own perspective. But if your doctor sees your religious beliefs as a problem or is uncomfortable with them, then talking further to reach an understanding could be important.

For an affirmative view of religion and health, check out the John Templeton Foundation. Or, visit The Skeptic Society where everything, including religion, is examined under a close magnifying glass of reason.

SOURCES: Interviews with Mark Su, M.D., resident, Tufts University Family Practice Residency; Richard P. Sloan, Ph.D., professor of behavioral medicine, Columbia University, New York; Kenneth Ferraro, Ph.D., professor of sociology, Purdue University, Ind.; Stevan Lars Nielsen, Ph.D., clinical professor, and clinical psychologist, Brigham Young University; Oct. 3, 2001, presentation to American Academy of Family Physicians in Atlanta
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