The study, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, found those who questioned their faith, felt God had abandoned them or thought their illnesses were the work of the devil were as much as 28 percent more likely to die within two years.
Dr. Kenneth I. Pargament, professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, the study’s lead author, said the researchers measured people’s struggles and their religious resources.
“In general, [we measured] how they were coping … the spiritual support they were getting from God, if there was a greater spiritual purpose to their illness,” Pargament told United Press International.
Researchers from Bowling Green and Duke University Medical Center studied 595 elderly patients who were hospitalized between January 1996 and March 1997 at Duke or Veterans Affairs Medical Center, both in Durham, N.C. All the subjects were at least 55 and nearly all were Christian, with the majority in conservative or mainline Protestant denominations.
Pargament said people who had lost faith in God, asked “Why me?” or ascribed their illnesses to the devil and were unable to resolve those feelings fared worse than those who did not endorse such statements.
“One of the possibilities is that the struggles led to a lot of emotional distress,” Pargament said. “People struggling with their faith felt cut off from family, friends or their religious communities. These struggles may have led to physical changes, but we don’t know that yet.”
The study noted earlier research has linked church attendance with reduced risk of death. Pargament said his study shows religion has a darker side.
He noted religious lore is filled with stories of figures who struggled with their faith as a step toward growth. He cited such figures as Moses, Jesus and Buddha as examples of those who went through such tests.
Pargament said it might be unresolved feelings of anger, guilt or anxiety that are to blame for the deterioration in health.
“Preliminary analyses among the survivors of this cohort suggest that patients who ‘stay stuck’ in their struggles over time may be more likely to suffer declines in their physical and mental health than those who are able to resolve their struggles more quickly,” he said.
“Whenever anyone becomes suddenly ill with a disease that threatens life, or a way of life, they ask, ‘Why?’ or ‘Why me?'” said Dr. Harold G. Koenig in a statement, another of the authors and associate professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center.
“It’s not so much a question as it is a release of frustration. Some people experience anger at God for not protecting them or not answering their prayers for healing. Some feel as though God is punishing them and they question God’s love for them, and sometimes they feel like others have deserted them as well.”
Koenig said those who are unable to resolve those feelings “are in trouble, and doctors need to know about it. This study is important because it identifies specific religious conflicts that may lead to poorer health and greater risk of death.”
Dr. David Freedman, a University of California at Berkeley statistics professor, said he doubts much can be concluded on the effects of religion based on this study.
“With a tiny effect like this, you have to be very cautious about bias,” Freedman told the New York Times.
Freedman, who has worked extensively in epidemiology, said the fact that 152 of the subjects could not be found for the two-year follow-up cast doubt on the validity of the study’s conclusions. He said a few more deaths among those who had resolved their religious issues would have shifted the study’s result.
Nonetheless, Pargament said the study presents some “really important implications.”
“Traditionally health care professionals have kept their distance from their patients’ religious and spiritual lives,” he said.
“This study says we need to take more seriously religion as a positive resource or a source of distress for some people. Health care professionals must be more sensitive to patients’ religious struggle and refer them to chaplains, rabbis and priests to help them work through it.”
© 2001 by United Press International.
Originally published on DrKelley.info, August 14, 2001. (Ed. 11.21.10)
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