Health Benefits of Christian Faith
By Alex Bunn and David Randall
How might a link between faith and health work?
If we accept that religious faith itself might be good for an individual’s health, then how might this be explained? Are there plausible mechanism by which faith might benefit health?
Spiritual beliefs do not merely provide subjective experience of life, and can have substantial impact on physical health. For instance, one large prospective study demonstrated that hopelessness is a powerful risk factor for heart attack and cancer, increasing the death rate two to threefold even in healthy individuals, after correcting for all the usual ‘medical’ risk factor such as social class, blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol and physical activity.14 A materialistic worldview that seas the universe as ultimately bleak and impersonal evokes a different cognitive appraisal of event than a worldview in which there is coherence and a higher purpose, one that offers hope and comfort in the worst of circumstances.
A purely biomedical model of disease causation may underestimate the importance of relationships to health
Positive health behaviours
Religious involvement is associated with a reduction in risky health behaviours,15 for instance problem drinking,16 smoking17 and permissive sexual behaviour. This can have dramatic benefits. One study even found that religious attendance was associated with a more than 90% reduction in meningococcal disease (meningitis and septicaemia), in teenagers,
a protection at least as good as meningococcal vaccination.18 Furthermore, religious involvement has been associated with improved adherence to medication.19,20,21
Enhanced social relationships
One cohort study in the US found that the mortality benefit for religious attenders was partly explained by better social contact and greater marital stability.22 A purely biomedical model of disease causation may underestimate the importance of relationships to health.
Psychoneuroimmunology is an advancing field of research exploring the complex interactions between a person’s mental state, their brain and their immune system, mediated by a range of mechanisms including stress hormones such as cartisol. Studies have linked emotional stress to development of the common cold23 and to rates of infectious disease more generally. Others have linked religious involvement to lower levels of inflammatory cytokines and markers of immune dysregulation.24 In one robust study of people living with HIV, those who grew in appreciation of spirituality of religious coping after diagnosis suffered significantly less decline in their CD4 counts and slower disease progression over a four year follow-up.25
Various studies looked at the efficacy of intercessory prayer on health outcomes. These were summarised in a ‘Cochrane’ meta-analysis, which concluded that overall there was no significant improvement in groups of patients prayer for, although one trial did show improvements in certain end-points including death.
In another, patients receiving prayer did better post-operatively than those not receiving prayer, but only if they did not know they were being prayed for. The review authors conclude that the evidence is insufficient to advise for or against prayer,26
and considerable controversy surrounds the in question.27 The reasons why God chooses to answer some prayers and not others are outside the scope of this File, but the assumption that God can be summoned like a genie in a lamp is closer to magical thinking than an authentically Christian understanding of prayer.
Read more: Health Benefits of Christian Faith (part 3-end)
14. Everson S et al. Hopelessness and risk of mortality and incidence of myocardial infarction and cancer. Psychosom Med 1996 Mar-Apr; 58(2):113-21
15. Mellor J, Freeborn B. Religious participant and risky health behaviours among adolescent. Health Econ 2010 Sep 29 (Epub ahead of print)
16. Borders T et al. Religiousness among at risk drinkers: it is prospectively associated with the development or maintenance of an alcohol-use disorder? J Stud Alcohol Drugs. 2010 Jan; 71(1): 136-42
17. Whooley M et al. Religious involvement and cigarette smoking in young adults: the CARDIA study (Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults study). Arch Intern Med 2002 Jul 22; 162(14):1604-10
18. Tully J et al. Risk and protective factors for meningococcal disease in adolescents: matched cohort study. BMJ 2006; 332(7539):445-50
19. McCann T et al. A comparative study of antipsychotic medication taking in people with schizophrenia. Int J Ment Health Nurs 2008 Dec; 17(7):428-38
20. Park J, Nachman S. The link between religion and HAART adherence in pediatric HIV patients. AIDS Care 2010 Apr 15: 1-6 [Epub ahead of print]
21. Steward W et al. Association of strength of religious adherence with attitudes regarding glaucoma or acular hypertension. Ophtalmic Res 2011; 45(1):53-6. Epub 2010 Aug 11
22. Strawbridge W et al. Frequent attendance at religious services and mortality over 28 years. Am J Pubic Health 1997 Jun; 87(6):597-61
23. Cohen S et al. Psychological stress and susceptibility to the common cold. NEJM 1991; 325(9):606-12
24. Koenig H et al. Attendance at religious services, interleukin-6 and other biological parameters of immune function in older adults. Int J Psychiatry Med. 1997; 27(3):233-50
25. Ironson G et al. An increase in religiousness/spiritually occurs after HIV diagnosis and predicts slower disease progression over 4 years in people with HIV. J Gen Intern Med 2006 Dec; 21 Suppl 5:62-8
26. Roberts L et al. Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD000368.D0I: 10.1002/14651858.CD000368.pub3
27. Jorgensen K et al. Divine intervention? A Cochrane review on intercessory prayer gone beyond science and reason. J Negat Result Biomed. 2009 Jun 10; 8:7.
Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) Files No. 44, 2011