Medical researcher studies health benefits of faith

THE HEALING POWER OF FAITH By Harold Koenig Simon & Schuster 224pp. $25

Harold Koenig is the kind of doctor most people wish for: one who takes crucial extra time with a patient when he senses a need, who sees each as an individual whose life story holds value no matter their age or how lowly their station.

He is also a dedicated scientist, with experience in family medicine, psychiatry, and geriatrics - and 15 years of ground-breaking research in a field that might have cost him his career. This sensitivity, caring, courage, and rigorous professionalism are all evident in his book, "The Healing Power of Faith: Science Explores Medicine's Last Great Frontier."

Dr. Koenig is also a great storyteller. He evokes in moving narratives the intimate, transforming moments of patients' lives as he unfolds the "big story": Scientific research has demonstrated that religious faith and practice - including individual prayer and congregational worship - have a significant impact on health, well-being, and longevity.

During his days as a medical student and his residency in family medicine in the early 1980s, Koenig kept coming upon patients whose strong religious faith affected them in surprising ways. From recovery of an alcoholic he thought past salvaging to the spiritual joy expressed by an elderly couple whose situation typically ends in depression, the contacts spurred him to make "explaining this phenomenon in scientific terms" his life's work.

As director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, Koenig has led more than 25 research projects on the effects of religious life on health. While other research facilities have done projects on the psychological effects of practices such as meditation, Duke has focused on the impact of traditional religious faith and practice among American Christians and Jews. Koenig's book describes the methods and results of several Duke studies, as well as the landmark projects in this area by other leading scientists.

He deals systematically with what research has learned about faith and life satisfaction, rates of divorce and suicide, coping with stress, preventing or overcoming depression, living longer and healthier lives, requiring less or shorter hospitalization, being protected from cardiovascular disease, and having lower blood pressure and stronger immune systems.

On the effects of intercessory prayer, he refers to the Byrd study on heart patients, but says other studies have yet to replicate its findings. He emphasizes that Duke studies "don't try to establish the validity of faith healing," which he says is not something science can measure. In an interview last year with this reporter, Koenig said some doctors think of prayer as a placebo. "I don't agree," he said. "We know a placebo has no active ingredient; we can't say there isn't an active ingredient in prayer."

The book also touches on what he calls "religious fanaticism," or "using faith to justify depriving families of health care." Examples given are largely cases of "extreme-fundamentalist congregations." Convinced of the power of faith to heal, he says it should be used in conjunction with medical science.

With his compelling synthesis of scientific research and individual experience, he also aims to demonstrate that today's focus on preventive medicine should include a powerful new component: Active religious faith is as proven a protective factor in health as diet, exercise, and curtailment of smoking and alcohol use. He feels this so strongly he explicitly addresses even nonbelievers in his final chapter: "Helping Yourself and Your Loved Ones Benefit from the Power of Faith."

* Jane Lampman is the Monitor's religion writer.

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