The link between religious belief and physical health has been extensively studied in academic journals. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that the majority of doctors believe religion and spirituality have a positive impact on their patients’ health. [source: Science Daily]. While research has found that people who are more religious score higher on various health measures, what’s not as clear is how the mechanism works. Does believing in a higher power cause the body to function better? Or is it that certain religions have behavioral expectations that promote healthier living?
A belief in God can bring comfort to patients facing a terminal illness, because they believe their soul will live on after death. Religious belief has also been shown to improve the quality of life for patients with disabilities or chronic, painful medical conditions [source: Science Daily]. But does religion have any effect on a person’s susceptibility to illness? Are believers less likely to get sick in the first place?
A study in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion reviewed recent research to see if there was a link between regular attendance at religious services and use of preventative health care services. Although the authors found no clear correlation, they did suggest that the social networks of churches contribute to better health. People who attend church are less lonely and isolated; they also have a peer group they can consult for health information and doctor recommendations.
The research firm Gallup found that very religious people tend to be healthier than the general population. Even after factoring out demographic and economic differences, Americans who describe themselves as “very religious” (i.e. those who attend services almost every week and consider religion an important part of their daily lives) scored higher on various measures of well-being, including smoking habits, diet and exercise frequency. (The difference between those described as “moderately religious” and “nonreligious” was much smaller). Such behaviors are often dictated by a religion’s core values: Mormons, for example, do not drink alcohol, so they are much less likely to suffer from alcohol-related conditions.
Belief in God alone is not a guarantee of good health. But in many cases, the behavioral norms established by religious leaders point believers toward healthier lifestyles.(Indeed/Digital Vision/Getty Images)
According to a number of studies, religious people are generally healthier than nonreligious people [source: Yang]. One possible explanation is the healing power of prayer. Another theory is that most religious communities require that their congregants live clean lives, which means swearing off cigarettes, alcohol and casual sex. Furthermore, religiously active people tend to be connected to a network of like-minded people. As a result, a religious person who's active in a religious community will likely benefit from social bonds formed within the congregation.
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