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Scientist Sees Growing Acceptance of Faith-Health Link as Evidence Piles Up


Today medical schools across Canada and the US are offering courses in the humanities in response to demands by patients to be treated as persons, not as medical diagnoses: “The aneurysm in ICU” or “the liver in room 365.” Additionally, more faculties of medicine are offering courses in spirituality and medicine.

Research conducted in the 1970’s by Dr. Herbert Benson, director of Harvard University’s Mind/body Medicine Institute suggests that what happens in a person’s mind could be as important to health as what happens on the cellular level. Further, his studies reveal that 60 to 90 percent of all visits to doctors’ offices in the US are related to stress and mind-body effects that do not respond to medical intervention.

Today the medical literature worldwide records more than 1, 200 recent studies on the health and religion-spirituality relationship. For example, neurologists are studying the biological effects of meditation and prayer on the brain.

Over the past two decades, Dr. Harold Koenig, the founder and director of Duke University Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, has published twenty-five books and over 200 professional journal articles detailing the connection between spirituality, faith and health. Now, in The Healing Connection, Koenig, a practising Christian, lays aside his researcher role to comment on the current findings and the implications for the medical profession and faith communities.

Among Dr. Koenig’s findings related to the health-faith connection are the following:

People who attend church regularly have lower blood pressures and are less likely to suffer from hypertension.
Regular church goers live longer, an effect that is equivalent to wearing seat belts or not smoking cigarettes.
Better mental health, greater social support, and healthier lifestyles among members of faith communities translate into better physical health.
Even when depressed over difficult health problems, people with a deep faith recover more quickly.

Koenig believes the time has come for the medical profession to pay attention to the whole human being and to recognize the existence of a spiritual component in dealing with illness.

A recent suggestion by a panel of the American College of Physicians that doctors take a spiritual history from seriously ill patients appears to lend support. Now in an article published on-line in The Annals of Internal Medicine, Professor Stephen Post provides an example of a spiritual screening tool consisting of the following questions:

1. Do you consider yourself spiritual or religious?
2. How important are these beliefs to you, and do they influence how you care for yourself?
3. Do you belong to a spiritual community?
4. How might health providers best address any needs in this area?

In a success-driven culture that finds little meaning in experiences of frailty, suffering, and dying, religion can provide an alternative vision for individuals and their families.

Further, Dr. Koenig believes the current research and an aging population offer faith communities unprecedented opportunities for new models of ministry to aging members and their families.

The Healing Connection by Harold G. Koenig with Gregg Lewis is published by Templeton Foundation Press.