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Studies show religion, health go hand in hand

(ran PT, HT, LTCTNT)

The more religious people are, the healthier they remain as they age.

Epidemiologist Jeffrey S. Levin of the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk reached this conclusion after examining medical research conducted among many different groups of people and examining a variety of illnesses.

Levin, associate professor of family and community medicine, analyzed more than 250 health studies that measured religious commitment through such factors as church attendance, frequency of prayer or declaration of religious belief.

"Overwhelmingly across the studies as a whole," he said, "there was a positive relationship" between religious observance and physical and mental health.

The connection appears among men and women, in different races, and among people of different geographical, educational and medical backgrounds, Levin added.

That doesn't necessarily mean, of course, that religion is the cause of better health.

It could be that religious people tend to have healthier habits. Or it might be that people with a religious affiliation are less isolated and lonely, which many studies have shown can also affect health. Or there might even be what scientists call a "placebo" effect: If people believe God is protecting them, they don't get sick.

David B. Larson, president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, Md., pointed out that people with strong religious beliefs tend to find personal crises less formidable and less damaging.

Larson noted that this is particularly beneficial to seniors. "The elderly have more frequent crises and more stressful crises," he said, including the death of friends or family members, loss of skills and serious illness.

For many elderly people, a church congregation is the principal social group. In one study of older outpatients in Springfield, Ill., more than half said nearly all of their five closest friends were from their churches.

Larson noted that older people might find more respect in a church community than in the larger society _ perhaps a reflection of Old Testament tradition.

Larson said strongly religious people "don't become bitter, nasty, angry and pessimistic" even when terrible things happen.

Harold G. Koenig of Duke University Medical Center's psychiatry department noted that religious faith "helps with fear, with anxiety, with the sense of helplessness.

"Instead of struggling with the problem, focusing on it, obsessing over it, they are somehow able to give this problem up to God," he said. "They take the problem and place it outside themselves.

"They obtain control," Koenig said, "by giving it up."

He explained that stress and despair come from the feeling that there's nothing one can do. But people who consciously put their trust in "somebody who is all-powerful in their eyes" are doing something _ and thus, indirectly, taking control of their destiny.

Another significant benefit of religion is social support. Churchgoers typically have pastors and friends they can call on in a crisis, instead of having to face illness and fear by themselves.

Both the community and sense of a personal God can help people who might otherwise feel isolated and alone, said Koenig, who is trained in geriatric medicine as well as psychiatry.

Koenig said that "many seniors are lonely. They feel deserted." But for those with religious belief "it all makes sense to them and there's somebody out there who cares about them."

Religious rituals themselves may contribute to mental and physical well-being. Private prayer and public worship services may "ease anxiety and dread, defeat loneliness, and establish a sense of being loved and appreciated," Levin wrote in a recent article.

To illustrate the link between health and religion, Larson cited his study of 30 women age 65 and over who had had surgery in a Midwestern hospital for broken hips _ an injury that often leads to depression.

According to the study, right after they were discharged from the hospital, the more religious women were not only less depressed but could also walk better than others with equally serious injuries.

Levin's review of research literature cites other examples. For instance, studies show that members of "behaviorally strict" groups or denominations (Mormons, Seventh-Day Adventists, Orthodox Jews and clergy of various faiths) had less risk of "cardiovascular disease, hypertension, stroke" and several other categories of illness.

The health-religion link, called by one expert "the best-kept secret" in medicine, has been inexplicably neglected by scientists, the researchers argued.

Larson, a former senior researcher for the National Institute of Mental Health, said neglect of the subject "is a real problem," considering the apparent beneficial effects religion may have.

"It should be studied a lot more," he said.

Arnold R. Isaacs is a Maturity News Service writer.

1994, Maturity News Service