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When Carrol Duggins-Diggs was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2002, she trusted her doctors to choose the best treatment. But she credits her survival to another source. "I believe God heard my prayers and that he healed me," says the retired human resource specialist from Accokeek, Md., who is now cancer free.
Still, she thought of her religion and her treatment as two separate realms until her doctor, Christina Puchalski, asked about her faith and the support it might provide during a health crisis. "I was pleasantly surprised," says Duggins-Diggs. "It's about time doctors realized that God is the true healer here."
While most doctors aren't about to hand their stethoscopes over to a higher power, more and more medical professionals are taking seriously the relationship between spirituality and physical health. "There's been a sea change in the way the medical community looks at spirituality," says Puchalski, an internist who founded the George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health in 2001 to promote research and education on the topic. In recent years, a growing number of rigorous studies have shown that spirituality—including prayer, meditation, and attendance at religious services—benefits health in ways that science hasn't fully explained. Among other effects, regular worship and other spiritual acts appear to lengthen life expectancy, strengthen immunity, improve the body's response to stress, and boost other measures of physical health.
"In the past eight years, there has probably been more research and discussion on the topic of religion and spirituality and health than was conducted from 1800 through the year 2000," says Harold Koenig, a doctor and codirector of the Duke Center for Spirituality and Health.
Partly as a result of new research, medical schools across the country have started requiring students to take courses in spirituality and health. Academic centers dedicated to the study of religion and medicine have sprung up at Duke University, the University of Florida, the University of Minnesota, and elsewhere. And some doctors are becoming more willing to talk about spirituality with their patients.
At the same time, however, doctors and patients must explore difficult new questions about the role of spirituality in healthcare. Should faith be promoted like diet and exercise? Should doctors encourage their patients to pray—or even pray with them? While the answers are far from straightforward, renewed attention to the questions may ultimately result in more compassionate care. "When you address spiritual, cultural, and religious beliefs," says Puchalski, "you're thinking about how to engage hope."
Healthcare and religion, of course, have been intertwined for most of recorded history, from ancient Roman healing temples to the ministries of Mother Teresa. But throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the role of faith in physical health was not widely accepted as a subject of serious medical inquiry. "For a long time, this kind of research has been called the 'antitenure track,' " says Koenig.
By the 1990s, however, the field was gaining momentum, as an accumulation of rigorous studies gave the subject new legitimacy among mainstream scientists. Dozens of studies showed, for example, that people who attended services regularly or identified themselves as religious tended to live longer than nonreligious types of similar age and health—by as much as seven years, according to some studies.
But such findings seemed to raise more questions than it answered.
"Researchers were left with a puzzle as to what is it about religious attendance" that benefits the body, says Chris Ellison, a sociologist as the University of Texas. "Is it a proxy for social support? Is it shaping health behaviors and lifestyle factors? Is it the experience of being with people who believe the same things you do? Or is it really something about the spiritual experience itself?"
The answer may be all of the above.
Scientists have long known that having social support is good for a person's health and that churchgoers tend to have healthier habits than nonchurchgoers. Recent studies show the benefits of spirituality go above and beyond those of social support. A 2006 study by Neal Krause of the University of Michigan, for example, showed that people who received social support for stress through their church had better self-reported health than those who received similar degrees of support through secular sources.