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Overall impact on wellness by religion often beyond the grasp of science


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (RNS) — A blossoming body of research is showing that religion can have an impressive impact on health, but scientists are also finding limits in their ability to study this benefit, says a leading authority on the subject.

Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University, has systematically studied the link between religion and health for more than 20 years. He outlined recent research during a Rural Health Conference at the University of Alabama.

He said a growing number of scientists are studying the connection, and the findings have important implications for medicine. For instance, studies show:

• That people with strong religious beliefs – no matter what faith or denomination – recover faster from serious depression and are less likely to become seriously depressed.

This is important because depression is a barrier to healing and good health, Koenig said. “Religion is a coping behavior,” he said. “Depression is kind of an indicator of failure to cope.”

• A connection between religion and the immune system. One study measured patients for interleukin six, or IL-6, an immune system cytokine that indicates inflammation. It found that people who attend religious services weekly had lower levels of IL-6, indicating a stronger immune system. A more recent study focused on HIV patients, and found those with increased religious activity had lower viral loads and higher CD4 counts, another indicator of a stronger immune system.

• That people with strong religious beliefs have lower blood pressure, lower mortality rates from cancer and heart disease, and slower mental decline when stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.

Koenig said religion often offers strong social support, a key ingredient to good health. Religion also offers people peace of mind, something he said should not be underestimated. “There is this incredible relationship between our physical condition and our emotion,” he said.

But some things in religion defy scientific study, Koenig said. For instance, studies of intercessory prayer – saying prayers for a sick person without his or her knowledge – have failed to find any positive result. Koenig said intercessory prayer ventures into the realm of supernatural and is beyond science.

“I think things happen that you can’t study and you can’t prove,” he said.

One conference participant asked a tough question: The Bible Belt runs through the South, and if people are so religious, why is there so much illness and poor health in the region?

Koenig said that hasn’t been studied, but other factors have a strong impact on health. Religion may help people be healthier, but it’s not a cure-all, able to overcome factors such as poor diet, stress or inactivity.