The Biology of Belief

Science and religion argue all the time, but they increasingly agree on one thing: a little spirituality may be very good for your health

  • Illustration by Christian Northeast for TIME

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    Faith and Longevity
    If belief in a pill can be so powerful, belief in God and the teachings of religion — which touch devout people at a far more profound level than mere pharmacology — ought to be even more so. One way to test this is simply to study the health of regular churchgoers. Social demographer Robert Hummer of the University of Texas has been following a population of subjects since 1992, and his results are hard to argue with. Those who never attend religious services have twice the risk of dying over the next eight years as people who attend once a week. People who fall somewhere between no churchgoing and weekly churchgoing also fall somewhere between in terms of mortality.

    A similar analysis by Daniel Hall, an Episcopal priest and a surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that church attendance accounts for two to three additional years of life. To be sure, he also found that exercise accounts for three to five extra years and statin therapy for 2.5 to 3.5. Still, joining a flock and living longer do appear to be linked. ( Read "The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z." )

    Investigators haven't teased out all the variables at work in this phenomenon, but Hummer, for one, says some of the factors are no surprise: "People embedded in religious communities are more likely to rely on one another for friendship, support, rides to doctor's appointments."

    But even hard scientists concede that those things aren't the whole story and that there's a constellation of other variables that are far harder to measure. "Religious belief is not just a mind question but involves the commitment of one's body as well," says Ted Kaptchuk, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "The sensory organs, tastes, smells, sounds, music, the architecture of religious buildings [are involved]." Just as the very act of coming into a hospital exposes a patient to sights and smells that are thought to prime the brain and body for healing, so may the act of walking into a house of worship.

    Neal Krause, a sociologist and public-health expert at the University of Michigan, has tried to quantify some of those more amorphous variables in a longitudinal study of 1,500 people that he has been conducting since 1997. He has focused particularly on how regular churchgoers weather economic downturns as well as the stresses and health woes that go along with them. Not surprisingly, he has found that parishioners benefit when they receive social support from their church. But he has also found that those people who give help fare even better than those who receive it — a pillar of religious belief if ever there was one. He has also found that people who maintain a sense of gratitude for what's going right in their lives have a reduced incidence of depression, which is itself a predictor of health. And in another study he conducted that was just accepted for publication, he found that people who believe their lives have meaning live longer than people who don't. "That's one of the purported reasons for religion," Krause says. "The sign on the door says, 'Come in here and you'll find meaning.'"

    African-American churches have been especially good at maximizing the connection between faith and health. Earlier in American history, churches were the only institutions American blacks had the freedom to establish and run themselves, and they thus became deeply embedded in the culture. "The black church is a different institution than the synagogue or mosque or even the white church," says Ken Resnicow, a professor of health and behavior education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. "It is the center of spiritual, community and political life." ( See pictures of the Civil Rights movement from Emmett Till to Barack Obama. )

    Given the generally higher incidence of obesity, hypertension and other lifestyle ills among African Americans, the church is in a powerful position to do a lot of good. In the 1990s, Marci Campbell, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, helped launch a four-year trial called North Carolina Black Churches United for Better Health. The project signed up 50 churches with a goal of helping the 2,500 parishioners eat better, exercise more and generally improve their fitness. The measures taken included having pastors preach health in their sermons and getting churches to serve healthier foods at community events.

    The program was so successful that it has been renamed the Body and Soul project and rolled out nationally — complete with literature, DVDs and cookbooks — in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. To skeptics who conclude that the churches have played a secondary role in the success of the programs — as a mere venue for secular health counseling — Campbell points out that in her studies, the most effective pitches came not from the nutritionists but from the pulpit. "The body is a temple, and the connection was made between the physical body and religious and spiritual well-being," she says.

    Read "Top 10 Religion Stories" .

    Read "Top 10 Scientific Discoveries" .

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