A Frontier of Medical Research: Prayer

Growing body of research points to a connection between faith and health.

Nurse Ginny Weisz recounts a vivid incident a few years ago, when a baby's heart stopped beating during birth. As the medical team worked for more than 30 minutes to revive the infant, Ms. Weisz prayed intensely.

Suddenly she said firmly out loud, "Father, let this baby live." And, she adds, "I believed He would." The baby revived, and "turned out to be a perfectly normal child."

Weisz has three children and a busy life as a practicing nurse. But she is now considering going back to school to get her PhD in nursing so she can research the effects of prayer on health.

Experiences like this among medical professionals are part of a culture shift - still in the fledgling stage - that is driving a new field of research: the links between religious faith and the healing of body and mind.

The growing evidence is increasingly pointing to physical- and mental-health benefits for patients who hold spiritual or religious convictions.

The several hundred studies that have now been published on the subject cover addictions, patient survival, coping with stress, rate of recovery from illness, and other health-care issues.

In his book, "The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer," Georgetown University medical professor Dale Matthews says: "Scientific studies show that religious involvement helps people prevent illness, recover from illness, and - most remarkably - live longer. The more religiously committed you are, the more likely you are to benefit."

Three recently published studies, discussed this week by 700 heath-care professionals gathered here for a course about "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine," add weight to the findings.

* Patients are 12 times more likely to survive open-heart surgery if they depend on their religious faith and social support .

* Over a 28-year study period, mortality for frequent attendees of religious services was almost 25 percent lower than for people who attended less frequently. For women, the figure was 35 percent.

* Those who attend religious services at least once a week have been shown to have stronger immune system functioning.

In discussing spirituality and medical outcomes at the meeting here, David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR) called the power of faith "the forgotten factor." He says it has been "neglected and mishandled" because of scientific attitudes toward religion.

But new research results, and Americans' own strong belief in God and the power of prayer, are driving researchers and others in the medical community to try to remedy this, he says.

A key challenge, however, is the difficulty of defining spirituality and religion. NIHR, a private nonprofit organization, is working with researchers to try to ensure some consistency in the research and to maintain the idea of "a search for the sacred."

Still controversial

But even as research efforts expand, they remain controversial. Dr. Larson himself calls such research "the anti-tenure factor" - and he's only half joking. "If you study this, you will actually go backward" in your career, he says.

Herbert Benson, a pioneer in the field and president of Harvard's Mind/Body Institute, which has sparked meetings like the one here, has lived with controversy for 30 years since he first suggested in a study that meditation produced physiological changes in the body.

"The battle is not won," says Harold Koenig, director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center. "There is a lot of resistance."

The meeting here, sponsored by the Mind/Body Institute and the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center, included a day for health-care professionals to learn about the healing practices of several faiths, including Buddhism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, the Pentecostal faith, and Christian Science. Virginia Harris, chairman of the board of directors of the Christian Science Church, which publishes this newspaper, explored the elements of prayer and how they contribute to spiritual healing of oneself and others.

Intercessory prayer

Perhaps most controversial is research on prayer, particularly intercessory prayer, in which others pray for the individual seeking healing. The only published research in this area is a 1988 study showing that heart patients who were prayed for had fewer complications of various kinds than patients who did not receive such prayer. Dr. Koenig says other studies of this type are not likely to get published.

"We're getting close to convincing people that religion and spirituality ... can help people stay healthy," he says. "But to convince doctors about effects of intercessory prayer.... Doctors can't deal with something supernatural."

Indeed, in a 1996 article in American Scientist magazine, Keith Stewart Thomson, a former president of the Academy of Natural Sciences, writes of prayer studies: "Matters of the human spirit are not well suited to investigation by the scientific method. Whether prayer is a subject amenable to any kind of scientific analysis is a tricky question...."

Larson agrees that studies of prayer should not be a priority. "It's an important dimension, but we can get way ahead of ourselves. We need to slow down and take the most solid approach."

But Larry Dossey, a physician and the author of "Healing Words" and "Prayer Is Good Medicine," is an advocate of intercessory prayer studies. Such research, he says, is already demonstrating the "nonlocal" nature of consciousness - that mind is infinite in space and time, that is, immortal.

In "The Faith Factor," Dr. Matthews says it's not known how intercessory prayer works, but he supports study of the issue. In fact, Matthews has designed such a study of rheumatoid-arthritis patients, while the Mind/Body Institute's Dr. Benson has begun a lengthy project involving patients undergoing surgery.

Interest in patient spirituality appears to be growing among mental-health practitioners as well - or at least a long-held resistance to it may be lessening. Over the years, psychiatry has stuck religion with labels such as "universal obsessional neurosis," "infantile helplessness," and "borderline psychosis."

NIHR's Larson says he began this field of study after he was taught as a psychiatric student about the dangers of religious belief. When he looked into the research, "I found it was actually beneficial," he says.

Duke University's Koenig says many studies now show intrinsic faith to be the most important factor in patients' recovery from depression. Indeed, American Psychiatric Association guidelines now call on members to respect patients' religious views and not to impose their own religious or antireligious attitudes on those they're trying to help.

For research aspirant Weisz, praying for patients or talking with them about their beliefs seems natural. But many of her nurse colleagues hesitate out of concern about imposing on their patients. It isn't that they aren't interested, she says. Weisz sees the conference here as offering a kind of confirmation - and inspiration - for health-care professionals to incorporate prayer into their treatment of patients.

What The Research Shows

Studies relating to physical health

* Greater religious involvement has been associated with lower blood pressure, fewer strokes, lower rates of death from heart disease, lower mortality after heart surgery, and longer survival in general.

* A strong religious faith and active involvement in a religious community appear to be the combination most consistently associated with better health.

Studies relating to mental health

* People who are more religious experience greater well-being and life satisfaction, less depression, less anxiety, and are much less likely to commit suicide.

* Therapies for depression and anxiety that incorporate religious beliefs in treatment result in faster recovery from illness than do traditional therapies.

Cost-benefit studies

* Heart-surgery patients who are religious have 20 percent shorter post-operative hospital stays than nonreligious patients (1987).

* Hospital stays are nearly 2-1/2 times longer for older patients who don't have a religious affiliation (1997).

* Heart-surgery patients assigned chaplain intervention showed an average two days shorter length of stay, or about $4,200 cost savings per patient (1995).

Summation of physical- and mental-health studies: Harold Koenig, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry, Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, Duke University Medical Center.

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