Religion and faith appear to exert positive effects on people's health, but that doesn't necessarily mean divine intervention is at work, scientists say. Instead, they see the handiwork of behaviors that previous research has shown promote health and fight disease: increased social support, coping skills and a positive self-image.
Not too long ago, "the suggestion that religion might influence mental or physical health outcomes was greeted with skepticism and hostility by medical researchers, and it evoked images of faith healers and charlatans among the general public," according to Christopher G. Ellison, PhD, of the University of Texas, Austin, and Jeffrey S. Levin, PhD, of the National Institute of Healthcare Research, Rockville, MD.
But recent reviews of the research literature provide a convincing case that "on average, high levels of religious involvement are moderately associated with better health status," Ellison and Levin write in a special December issue of Health Education & Behavior devoted to "Public Health and Health Education in Faith Communities."
Ellison and Levin explore a range of explanations for the positive health effects of religious practices and spiritual beliefs, many of which have been scientifically demonstrated to promote health and reduce disease:
* Healthy Behavior. Religious involvement may discourage behavior that
increases health risks, such as tobacco and alcohol consumption, or it may
encourage other positive lifestyle choices.
* Social Support. People who regularly attend religious services appear to have larger and denser social networks to provide emotional support and other forms of assistance than less frequent attendees.
* Self Esteem. Religious involvement may promote feelings of self-worth and confidence in the ability to control one's own affairs and destiny. * Coping Skills. Prayer, meditation and other religious activities may help people deal with stressful events and conditions.
* Positive Emotions. Religious activities may also lead to positive emotions, which have been shown to influence immune functions and other physiological factors that influence health.
* Healthy Beliefs. Faith may promote a positive outlook that offers both emotional and tangible means of promoting individuals' health and well-being.
Ellison and Levin say these functions of religion are rarely measured directly. Most studies, they say, focus on the frequency of church attendance and prayer, "measures of religious behavior that may tap poorly or not at all the mechanisms by which religion really influences mental and physical health."
Evidence that participating in a religion can promote healthy behavior is offered in a related study in the same issue of the Journal. Sarah A. Fox, EdD, of the University of California at Los Angeles, found that regular churchgoers are more likely to have a mammogram than are women in the community at large.
Nearly three-quarters of the 1,517 church members she studied had a mammogram during the previous 24 months, compared with 60 percent of 510 women in the community. Nearly all (96 percent) of the church members reported attending church at least monthly, compared with about half (55 percent) of the women in the community.
"This finding suggests that frequent church attendance contributes to better mammography screening status," Fox and colleagues say.
Health Education & Behavior, a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), publishes research on critical health issues for professionals in the implementation and administration of public health information programs. SOPHE is an international, non-profit professional organization that promotes the health of all people through education. For additional information about SOPHE, contact Elaine Auld at (202) 408-9804.