Whether you’re being urged to get more exercise, eat better or take your medication, physicians dole out plenty of advice on ways to improve your health. But when is the last time your doctor told you to attend religious services? Most likely, never.
But for people who want to do everything possible to stay healthy, this is a recommendation worth considering.
Even though there’s been a steady flow of research linking religious observance to everything from lower blood pressure and less cardiovascular disease to better immune function and higher levels of overall well-being, religion’s health-promoting benefits don’t get much attention.
Why does religion promote good health…and how can people tap into this remarkable benefit? To learn more, Bottom Line Health spoke with Harold G. Koenig, MD, a renowned authority on religion and health.
Do the health benefits linked to religion apply only to certain faiths? No. Studies finding health benefits have included people of many faiths and spiritual traditions, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists.
Does it matter how often someone attends services? Definitely. People who attend services once or more each week see more health benefits than those who attend less frequently. In fact, that’s one of the strongest and most consistent findings in studies of religion and health, according to an important research review published in 2017 in Current Directions in Psychological Science. One study cited in the review found that regularly attending religious services over the course of a lifetime translated into about seven additional years of life. Other studies suggest that the effects on longevity are as strong as those seen for cholesterol-lowering drugs.
Do some people seem to benefit more than others? Yes. Studies find stronger associations between religion and health in women and older adults compared with men and younger adults. We also know that women and older adults in the US are more likely to attend services, to pray and to say that religion is important in their lives, according to data from the Pew Research Center.
However, some people with strong beliefs become more distraught if their illness persists or worsens. They may even lose faith if they feel that their prayers have gone unanswered.
How does religion help people deal with chronic illness? Some of the benefits are social. That’s because people who belong to a religious institution have a reliable source of social connection and support—one that will not disappear when, for example, someone becomes too ill to work or participate in hobbies and recreational activities. It helps, too, that most religions put a high value on helping others in distress and have systems in place to assist members in times of need.
People with strong religious beliefs also may find it easier to see meaning and purpose in their illness. They may view it as part of a larger plan and believe that their suffering will be rewarded or will reveal new life lessons. Religious scriptures, from many traditions, provide role models for such fortitude.
Many religious groups also encourage healthy lifestyles—such as not smoking or abusing drugs or alcohol. There is one downside, though, to all those social hall suppers—religious people are more likely than others to be overweight, according to research.
What role does prayer play? No clear link has been established in the scientific literature between prayer and longevity, though the research could be skewed by the fact that people already battling health problems may tend to pray more. But prayer can be a powerful coping strategy.
One theory is that people who pray may gain an indirect sense of control over their stressful circumstances—by believing that a higher power is in control and that praying can lead to change, the believer may feel more internal control than someone who feels all the power is in the hands of other people, such as doctors.
Should I discuss my religious beliefs with my health-care providers or keep them private? In an ideal world, your medical providers would ask you about your religious beliefs. One big reason is that your beliefs may affect the decisions you make about your care. You cannot have honest discussions with your doctors if they do not know your values. Your care providers also should know where you get social and practical support. If that includes a house of worship, it should be part of the conversation.
They should also know if you have unmet spiritual needs—and would, for example, like to receive visits from a hospital chaplain. So if religion is important to you, but your providers do not bring it up, you should definitely speak up. That said, don’t let any health-care provider try to impose his/her religious views on you.
Is religion ever used as part of formal treatment? Yes. When patients want such help, some mental-health providers now offer a technique called “religiously integrated cognitive behavioral therapy.” The idea is to combine a patient’s religious beliefs with evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques to relieve depression or other forms of psychological distress.
When chronically ill patients who were Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist received psychotherapy that incorporated their religious beliefs, it was as effective as conventional CBT in treating depression, according to research published in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.
As in other forms of CBT, the goal is to identify and change unhealthy patterns of thinking and behavior. The twist is that therapists ask clients to use passages of scripture from their religious traditions to reinforce those healthier ways of thinking and behaving.
Helpful: If you’re interested in religiously integrated CBT, speak to your therapist about using workbooks (for Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists) that are available for free from Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. Go to SpiritualityAndHealth.Duke.edu.
What about nonbelievers—can they also get benefits from religion? Belief in a higher power is not necessary to tap into some of the elements of religion that help people deal with a chronic medical condition, pain, disability, financial strain and the other burdens that can come with illness. Many people can benefit from building strong social connections and doing good for others. Meditation is not exactly the same as prayer, but it can help reduce pain and produce other health benefits, such as reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure and improving sleep problems.
Likewise, studying philosophy can be as uplifting for some as studying scripture is for others. And of course, adopting healthy habits, such as not smoking, not drinking too much and getting plenty of exercise, requires no religious faith. However, current studies do show that religion offers additional benefits to those who follow these health-promoting practices.