The medical evidence is clear: experiments have illustrated a causal relationship between a diet heavy in vegetables and fruits and defense against diabetes, heart disease (the biggest killer in America), and even poor mental health conditions like depression, all of which reduce the quality of life and life expectancy. Still, the solution to increasing a plateauing Western life expectancy (or in the case of the US, a decreasing one) is not as “simple” as changing one’s diet (which may be difficult to do social norms and expectations) because one’s health is inextricably linked to one’s psychological well-being and a whole host of socioeconomic and cultural barriers. Even as medical providers have worked on addressing, to some success, their tunnel-vision approach of targeting one aspect of a patient, the biochemical component, without viewing how the patient integrates into a much larger sociological context, one social determinant of health has remained largely ignored: one’s religious identity.
Interestingly, this aspect of one’s personal life seemingly unrelated to health has been found to be correlated to longer life expectancy in what health psychologists deem the faith factor, even when covariates are controlled for. The data, which first emerged in the 1990s, were striking; those in Israeli religiously orthodox collective settlements suffered half the mortality rates of the secular control group, a result that has since been replicated, albeit to a somewhat reduced extent, in longitudinal studies that concluded that, after controlling for health risk factors, nurses attending Church services weekly had a third lower mortality rate than those never attending. Critics are quick to (accurately) point out that these studies rely on correlations, which do not indicate a causal relationship, but the reality is that religion, even when age, gender, ethnicity, and unhealthy behaviors like alcohol consumption and smoking are controlled for, still predicts significant group variations. So why does this curious relationship exist in the first place?
The first point to emphasize is that one’s mental health, which is benefited by a belief in a benevolent higher-power, is connected to one’s physical health. Landmark psychological studies have concluded strong (even causal) relationships between stress and vulnerability to disease and speed of physical healing, as well as associations between various personality traits (aggression vs relaxation, competition vs easygoingness) and risk of a heart attack. One’s sense of spirituality fits nicely into this niche despite the lack of abundant quantitative data; those who feel loved by a caring God are more likely to have an internal locus of control (believe that they are in control of their own destiny through free will) and are buoyed by optimism and hope (theirs is a reassuring God who will provide them with an afterlife of eternal bliss). People of faith learn especially to channel these beliefs while in prayer and meditation, which, as experimental and correlational studies indicate, strengthen neural connections between brain regions, reduce activation in the amygdala (the brain region responsible for responses of anxiety and hostility) and increase activation in the prefrontal cortex (the region of the frontal lobe that is responsible for higher-level cognitive functioning, including emotional regulation), and calm the brain in emotional situations. In times of stress, these qualities, as well as the immense social connectedness that being part of a faith community provides, help make people more resilient with better immune system functioning and reduced anxiety; the moderation that religion inculcates in a person by stressing obedience and respect to a deity’s wishes further accentuates this effect by promoting reduced smoking and drinking in the religious.
As scientifically minded observers (and hopefully leaders of such research), we should use this knowledge to improve patient well-being on a population level for all religious groups. Clearly, in addition, to support good mental and physical health, one’s religion mediates the way he or she interprets health offerings and responds behaviorally to potential treatment plans, and thus the medical community must evaluate its effects whenever considering new treatment plans. Given that resistance to fertility treatment, vaccines, and blood transfusions are all interconnected to ethnoreligious groups’ perception of medicine and spirituality, physicians, alongside nurses, nurse practitioners, PAs, public health workers, and more, must conduct personal, intimate dialogue with the religious leaders whose proscriptions and prescriptions pay such a crucial rule in dictating health outcomes. Only by acknowledging patients’ spiritual needs, especially in times of religious significance like birth, sickness, and death, can we be equipped to make evidence-based medicine patient-centered for a modernizing world.
Meyers Psychology for the AP Course: Third Edition