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The benefits of spirituality to health

Religion and health

As some research seems to indicate that there are benefits to religious affiliation and health some have argued that doctors could prescribe some type of religious belief or behaviour, such as church attendance.  However, Sloan et al writing in The New England Journal of Medicine dismiss this approach arguing that the link between religion and health is much more fragile than many make out and that many of the studies are 'methodologically flawed'. They also dispute the idea that doctors should discuss religious or spiritual matters with patients and that they should be referred on, in relevant cases, to the appropriate experts.

A contrary view is advanced by psychiatrists Russell D'Souza and Kuruvilla George who argue that it is beneficial for psychiatrists to include in their discussion with patients their spiritual beliefs. They argue that this discussion allows patients to see that the psychiatrist is concerned with the whole person and also builds the relationship between them thus increasing the therapeutic intervention.

Spirituality and health in adults

A number of research projects have revealed apparent links between spirituality and health in adults. These are about spirituality rather than religion.

Changes in spirituality and well-being in a retreat program for cardiac patients

Research by James E. Kennedy, R. Anne Abbott, and 
Beth S. Rosenberg, examined the impact of educational retreats (lasting two-and-a-half days) on cardiac patients. the following is an abstract of the research:
Context: Many epidemiological studies indicate that spirituality or religion are positively correlated with health measures, but research is needed on interventions that change spirituality to verify that it actually affects health and to justify suggestions that changes in spiritual practices or beliefs may have health benefits.  However, it is not clear that health interventions can influence spirituality or which techniques are effective.
Objective:   To evaluate whether participation in a retreat program for cardiac patients and their partners resulted in changes in spirituality, and whether changes in spirituality were related to changes in well-being, meaning in life, anger, and confidence in handling problems.
Design:  Participants filled out questionnaires before and after participating in the retreat.
Setting:  Retreats  were sponsored by the Health Promotion and Wellness Program, University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point and were held in a remote location.
Participants:   Notices were sent to cardiac rehabilitation program and directly to heart patients, resulting in the enrollment of 72 first-time participants.
Intervention:  The 2.5 day educational retreats included discussion and opportunities to experience healthy life-style options.  Exercise, nutrition, stress management techniques, communication skills that enhance social support, and spiritual principles of healing were incorporated. Experiential practices included yoga, meditation, visualization, and prayer.
Results:  Of the participants, 78% reported increased spirituality after the retreat.  Changes in spirituality were positively associated with increased well-being, meaning in life, and confidence in handling problems, and with decreased tendency to become angry.
Conclusions:  Programs that explore spirituality in a health context can result in increased spirituality that is associated with increased well-being and related measures.  Many patients and their families want to integrate the spiritual and health dimensions of their lives.  Further work is needed to develop health care settings that can support this integration.
Published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2002, Volume 8, No. 4, pp. 64-73,

The effects of spirituality on well-being of people with lung cancer
Research at the School of Nursing, University of Texas, Austin, TX, USA demonstrated the positive impact of spirituality on the well-being lung cancer patients.
The purpose was to examine the effects of spirituality on the sense of well-being of people with lung cancer attending urban and rural oncology and radiation centres.

The sample comprised 60 adults ranging from 33-83 years of age. Most participants had non-small cell lung cancer and were female, Caucasian, and older than 50.

Participants completed a questionnaire composed of six survey instruments: Life Attitude Profile-Revised, Adapted Prayer Scale, Index of Well-Being, Symptom Distress Scale, a background information sheet, and a cancer characteristics questionnaire. The researchers focused on the patients’ meaning in life, prayer activities and experiences, symptom distress, and psychological well-being.

It was found that higher meaning in life scores were associated with higher psychological well-being and lower symptom distress scores. Higher prayer scores were associated with higher psychological well-being scores. The researchers concluded that aspects of spirituality, meaning in life, and prayer had positive effects on psychological and physical responses in this group of people with lung cancer.

You can read about the research on-line.

Effects of spirituality in breast cancer survivors.

The School of Nursing at the University of Texas at Austin, USA, also examined the impact of spirituality on breast cancer survivors. 

The objective was to examine the effects of spirituality (meaning in life and prayer) on a sense of well-being among 84 Texan women, aged 34-80, who have had breast cancer. 36 per cent of the women had been diagnosed less than one year previously, 38 per cent within the previous one to five years, and 26 per cent more than five years previously.

The study approach consisted of completing a questionnaire assessing personal and cancer characteristics, aspects of spirituality (meaning in life and prayer), and physical and psychological responses to breast cancer.

Findings: Meaning in life was positively related to psychological responses and negatively related to physical responses. Prayer was positively related to psychological well-being.

Women with higher prayer scale scores reported lower education levels, less income to meet their needs, and closer relationships with God. Meaning in life influenced the impact of breast cancer on physical and psychological well-being.

The researchers recommended that healthcare providers should encourage women diagnosed with breast cancer to explore their spirituality as an effective resource for dealing with the physical and psychological responses to cancer.

You can read about the study on-line

Spirituality and wellbeing in frail and non-frail older adults

Research at the University of Southampton, England, UK examined the impact of spirituality on the personal well-being of elderly, frail people.


Previous studies have identified that spiritual beliefs contribute to psychological well-being (PWB) in older people, but limited research has considered the effects of spirituality on PWB when physical health deteriorates and people become frail. The researchers recruited 233 British participants from warden-controlled retirement housing to complete interviewer-administered questionnaires. Results showed that, after controlling for marital status, age, education, other health problems, and gender, degree of frailty had a negative effect on PWB. Spirituality was also a significant predictor of PWB and moderated the negative effects of frailty on PWB. Therefore, this study suggests that spirituality is a resource in maintaining PWB, and that the use of this resource is more significant for individuals with greater levels of frailty.

The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 59B, (3), P123-P129.


Sloan et  al, 2000, 'Graft-versus-host disease in children who have received a cordblood or bone marrow transplant from an HLA-identical sibling', The New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 342(25), 1847-1854.

D'Souza, R & Kuruville, G, 2006, 'Spirituality, religion and psychiatry: its application to clinical practice', Australasian Psychiatry, 14(4), 408-412.

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