A first-of-its-kind study on the health practices of Christian Scientists, released yesterday by Harvard Medical School, shows "intriguing health benefits."
People identifying themselves as Christian Scientists in the study "use far more spiritual healing" than others and "are far, far more likely to be satisfied with their lives," the researchers found.
Fifty-two percent of the Christian Scientists said they were very satisfied with life compared with 37 percent of non-Christian Scientists, and 71 percent reported very good or excellent health compared with 61 percent of others.
These findings "are at odds with the perception that Christian Scientists are less healthy than non-Christian Scientists," say the researchers at Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute.
Results of the national survey on "self-reported health and illness" counter conventional wisdom on several fronts. For example, it shows that Christian Scientists report fewer illnesses than non-Christian Scientists, but also that they are as likely as the general population to report going to a doctor or a hospital.
The report doesn't say why physician visits or hospital admissions took place, nor does it indicate whether they had any relation to illnesses or symptoms reported elsewhere in the study, says Herbert Benson, president of the Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.
Gary Jones, spokesman for The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston, points out that Christian Scientists may make doctor or hospital visits for medical exams required by employers, schools, the military, or insurance companies and for purposes of childbirth.
This study grows out of an interest in the relationship between spirituality and health that has burgeoned in the medical community the past 15 years. Research studies are multiplying, and are beginning to look at prayer as well as the link between church-going and well-being. This is the first study of its type on Christian Scientists.
Dr. Benson says his study focused on Christian Scientists "because of the perception that they use their religious beliefs in healing and their tendency to not use routine medical care."
"What better way to explore these connections between mind/body healing and health than to research those who incorporate ... healing practices, including spirituality, meditation, and prayer, into their everyday routines," Benson says.
The fact that Christian Scientists report less illness than others, he says, can be tied to much greater use of two practices identified in the study: special religious services and spiritual healing.
Benson suggests that "mind/body healing - including spiritual approaches - could offer important health benefits and may be synergistic to conventional medicine." The study urges further research on whether conventional and unconventional medicine can be combined with spiritual healing to bring significant benefits.
Benson and Jeffery Dusek, the Institute's associate director of clinical research, co-authored the study, which appears this month in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, a Towson, Md.-based monthly medical journal.
Gallup International Institute conducted the interviews with 230 individuals who identified Christian Science as their religious preference and 589 non-Christian Scientists.
The aim was to determine the proportion of Christian Scientists and non-Scientists who had experienced over the previous year any of 13 common medical conditions or symptoms: headaches, allergies, sprains or strains, anxiety, dizziness, arthritis, depression, insomnia, chronic pain, digestive problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, or cancer.
The study also compared the use of conventional medicine (defined as a physician visit, regular use of prescribed medication, or hospital admission); unconventional medicine (such as home cures, herbal remedies, lifestyle diets, and megavitamin therapy); and mind/body medicine (visual imagery, relaxation response techniques, biofeedback, hypnosis, special religious services, and spiritual healing).
Of those who reported illness over the previous 12 months, 74 percent of Christian Scientists and 78 percent of non-Scientists used some form of conventional medicine. Christian Scientists took fewer prescribed medications (33 percent compared with 43 percent), but they visited physicians and were admitted to hospitals as often as non-Christian Scientists.
In another surprising result, Christian Scientists reported the same level of smoking and drinking of alcoholic beverages as non-Christian Scientists. And about half of both groups used at least one type of unconventional medicine during the previous year.
Some of these results may stem from the fact the survey relied on self-identification of religious preference. Only 60 percent of those calling themselves Christian Scientists said they belonged to an organized religious group, and 21 percent said they never attended religious services.
Mr. Jones suggests the study "may have captured a cross-section of readers of 'Science and Health' [the textbook written by Mary Baker Eddy], who are at many different points, from new readers to those who are committed Christian Scientists relying wholly on spiritual healing."
The finding that Christian Scientists report fewer illnesses can't be attributed to healthier lifestyles (as have studies on some other faiths), the Harvard researchers say.
Christian Scientists participate less frequently than non-Scientists in practices such as exercise, limiting cholesterol, taking vitamins and minerals, and avoiding refined sugar.
On the issue of whether Christian Scientists may have reported fewer illnesses as a way of defending their religious beliefs, researchers say the questionnaire was never described as evaluating the relationship between religion and health. Gallup interviewers told those participating it was a survey on "health and life satisfaction."
Jones says, "We're encouraged by the basic findings of the study that Christian Scientists are healthier and more satisfied with life.... We agree that it raises many questions that further studies could answer. We are confident Christian Science alone is a powerful force for health and well-being."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society