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10:45-11:30. Religion, Spirituality and Health: Are They Connected. Harold G. Koenig, MD Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry Duke University Medical Center GRECC VA Medical Center. Overview. Defining ambiguous terms Coping with illness Research on religion and mental health

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Religion, Spirituality and Health:

Are They Connected

Harold G. Koenig, MD

Departments of Medicine and Psychiatry

Duke University Medical Center

GRECC VA Medical Center



  • Defining ambiguous terms
  • Coping with illness
  • Research on religion and mental health
  • Research on religion and physical health
  • Further resources
  • Respondents

Religion vs. Spirituality vs. Humanism

Religion – beliefs, practices, a creed with do’s and don’ts, community-oriented, responsibility-oriented, divisive and unpopular, but easier to define and measure

Spirituality –some relationship to the Sacred or transcendent; spirituality is more personal, individual-focused, and inclusive; although a popular term, is difficult to define and quantify

Secular Humanism – areas of human experience and behavior that lack a connection to the transcendent, to a higher power, or to ultimate truth; focus is on the human self as the ultimate source of power and meaning

Most of research has been done on religion. There are problems when trying to examine the association between spirituality and health.


Concerns About Measuring Spirituality

  • Spirituality is either measured as religion, or as positive psychological or character traits
  • Positive psychological states include having purpose and meaning in life, being connected with others, experiencing peace, harmony, and well-being
  • Positive character traits include being forgiving, grateful, altruistic, or having high moral values and standards
  • Atheists or agnostics may deny any connection with spirituality, but rightly claim their lives have meaning, purpose, are connected to others, practice forgiveness and gratitude, are altruistic, have times of great peacefulness, and hold high moral values

Concerns About Measuring Spirituality

  • Can no longer look at relationships between spirituality and mental health (since spirituality scales confounded by items assessing mental health)
  • Can no longer examine relationships between spirituality and physical health (since mental health affects physical health)
  • 7. The result of #5 and #6 is meaningless tautological associations between spirituality and health
  • 8. Can no longer study the negative effects of spirituality on health, since positive effects are predetermined by the definition of spirituality
  • 9. Confusing to use religious language (spirituality or that having to do with the spirit) to describe secular psychological terms
  • (see “Concerns about measuring ‘spirituality’ in research.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, 2008, in press


“The very idea and language of ‘spirituality,’ originally grounded in the self-disciplining faith practices of religious believers, including ascetics and monks, then becomes detached from its moorings in historical religious traditions and is redefined in terms of subjective self-fulfillment.”

  • C. Smith and M.L. Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, p.175

In summary

  • When talking about research, I will talk in terms of RELIGION (as a multi-dimensional concept)
  • When conducting research, spirituality should be understood in traditional terms – the deeply religious whose lives and lifestyles reflect their faith (ideal models: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Siddhārtha Gautama, etc.)
  • 3. When clinical applications are considered, the term SPIRITUALITY should be used, where spirituality is broadly inclusive and self-defined by patients themselves

Religion and Coping with Illness

  • Many persons turn to religion for comfort when sick
  • Religion is used to cope with problems common among those with medical illness:
  • - uncertainty
  • - fear
  • - pain and disability
  • - loss of control
  • - discouragement and loss of hope

Stress-induced Religious Coping

America’s Coping Response to Sept 11th:

1. Talking with others (98%)

2. Turning to religion (90%)

3. Checked safety of family/friends (75%)

4. Participating in group activities (60%)

5. Avoiding reminders (watching TV) (39%)

6. Making donations (36%)

Based on a random-digit dialing survey of the U.S. on Sept 14-16

New England Journal of Medicine2001; 345:1507-1512


Sigmund Freud

Future of an Illusion, 1927

“Religion would thus be the universal obsessional neurosis of humanity... If this view is right, it is to be supposed that a turning-away from religion is bound to occur with the fatal inevitability of a process of growth…If, on the one hand, religion brings with it obsessional restrictions, exactly as an individual obsessional neurosis does, on the other hand it comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find in an isolated form nowhere else but amentia, in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion…”


Sigmund Freud

Civilization and Its Discontents

“The whole thing is so patently infantile, so incongruous with reality, that to one whose attitude to humanity is friendly it is painful to think that the great majority of mortals will never be able to rise above this view of life.”

Part of a presentation given by Rachel Dew, M.D., Duke post-doc fellow


Religion and Neurosis

  • May be used to justify hatred, aggression, prejudice
  • May be used to gain power and control over others
  • Can foster rigid thinking, obsessive practices
  • Can foster anxiety, fear, and excessive guilt (sin)
  • May produce psychosocial strains
  • May be used defensively to avoid addressing issues
  • Common in thought content of psychotic persons
  • Can interfere with mental health care (stop meds)
  • Can foster negative attitudes toward MH professionals
  • Can delay diagnosis and effective treatment

Spiritual Injury and PTSD Symptoms

1,385 veterans from Vietnam (95%), World War II and/or Korea (5%) involved in outpatient or inpatient PTSD programs. VA National Center for PTSD and Yale University School of Medicine. Weakened religious faith was an independent predictor of use of VA mental health services—independent of severity of PTSD symptoms and level of social functioning. Investigators concluded that the use of mental health services was driven more by their weakened religious faith than by clinical symptoms or social factors.

Fontana, A., & R. Rosenheck. Trauma, change in strength of religious faith, & mental health service use among veterans treated for PTSD. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease2004; 192:579–84.


Religion and Mental Health:

Research Before Year 2000

  • Well-being, hope, and optimism (91/114)
  • Purpose and meaning in life (15/16)
  • Social support (19/20)
  • Marital satisfaction and stability (35/38)
  • Depression and its recovery (60/93)
  • Suicide (57/68)
  • Anxiety and fear (35/69)
  • Substance abuse (98/120)
  • Delinquency (28/36)
  • Summary: 478/724 quantitative studies
  • Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001)

Attention Received Since Year 2000

Religion, Spirituality and Mental Health

  • Growing interest – entire journal issues on topic
  • (J Personality, J Family Psychotherapy, American Behavioral Scientist, Public Policy and Aging
  • Report, Psychiatric Annals, American J of Psychotherapy [partial], Psycho-Oncology,
  • International Review of Psychiatry, Death Studies, Twin Studies, J of Managerial Psychology,
  • J of Adult Development, J of Family Psychology, Advanced Development, Counseling & Values,
  • J of Marital & Family Therapy, J of Individual Psychology, American Psychologist,
  • Mind/Body Medicine, Journal of Social Issues, J of Health Psychology, Health Education &
  • Behavior, J Contemporary Criminal Justice, Journal of Family Practice [partial], Southern Med J )
  • Growing amount of research-related articles on topic
  • PsycInfo 2001-2005 = 5187 articles (2757 spirituality, 3170 religion) [11198 psychotherapy] 46%
  • PsycInfo 1996-2000 = 3512 articles (1711 spirituality, 2204 religion) [10438 psychotherapy] 34%
  • PsycInfo 1991-1995 = 2236 articles ( 807 spirituality, 1564 religion) [9284 psychotherapy] 24%
  • PsycInfo 1981-1985 = 936 articles ( 71 spirituality, 880 religion) [5233 psychotherapy] 18%
  • PsycInfo 1971-1975 = 776 articles ( 9 spirituality, 770 religion) [3197 psychotherapy] 24%

Religion and Physical Health

  • The mind-body relationship
  • Model of religion’s effects on physical health
  • Research on religion and physical health
  • Research resources

Effects of Negative Emotions on Health

  • Rosenkranz et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci 2003; 100(19):11148-11152
  • [experimental evidence that negative affect influences immune function]
  •   Kiecolt-Glaser et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci 2003; 100(15): 9090-9095
  • [stress of caregiving affects IL-6 levels for as long as 2-3 yrs after death of patient]
  •   Blumenthal et al. Lancet 2003; 362:604-609
  • [817 undergoing CABG followed-up up for 12 years; controlling # grafts, diabetes,
  • smoking, LVEF, previous MI, depressed pts had double the mortality]
  • Brown KW et al. Psychosomatic Medicine 2003; 65:636–643
  • [depressive symptoms predicted cancer survival over 10 years]
  • Epel et al. Proc Nat Acad Sci 2004; 101 :17312-17315
  • [psychological stress associated with shorter telomere length, a determinant of cell
  • senescence/ longevity; women with highest stress level experienced telomere
  • shortening suggesting they were aging at least 10 yrs faster than low stress women]
  • Kubzansky et al. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2007; 64:1393-1401
  • [emotional vitality – positive emotions – reduces risk of coronary heart disease by
  • nearly 20% over 15 years in over 6,000 persons]

Religion and Physical Health Research

  • Immune function (IL-6, lymphocytes, CD-4, NK cells)
  • Death rates from cancer by religious group
  • Predicting cancer mortality (Alameda County Study)
  • Diastolic blood pressure (Duke EPESE Study)
  • Predicting stroke (Yale Health & Aging Study)
  • Coronary artery disease mortality (Israel)
  • Survival after open heart surgery (Dartmouth study)
  • Overall survival (Alameda County Study)
  • Summary of the research


Lutgendorf SK, et al. Religious participation, interleukin-6, and mortality in older adults. Health Psychology2004; 23(5):465-475

Prospective study examines relationship between religious attendance, IL-6 levels, and mortality rates in a community-based sample of 557 older adults. Attending religious services more than once weekly was a significant predictor of lower subsequent 12-year mortality and elevated IL-6 levels (> 3.19 pg/mL), with a mortality ratio of.32 (95% CI = 0.15,0.72; p <.01) and an odds ratio for elevated IL-6 of 0.34 (95% CI = 0.16, 0.73, p <.01), compared with never attending religious services. Structural equation modeling indicated religious attendance was significantly related to lower mortality rates and IL-6 levels, and IL-6 levels mediated the prospective relationship between religious attendance and mortality. Results were independent of covariates including age, sex, health behaviors, chronic illness, social support, and depression.


Predicting Cancer Mortality

Mortality data from Alameda County, California, 1974-1987

3 Lifestyle practices: smoking; exercise; 7-8 hours of sleep

n=2290 all white All Attend Attend Church

Weekly Weekly+3 Practices

+ no


SMR for all

cancer mortality 89 52 13

SMR = Standardized Mortality Ratio (compared to 100 in US population)

Enstrom (1989). Journal of the National Cancer Institute, 81:1807-1814.


Religious Attendance and Survival in the

Alameda County Study

28-year follow-up of 5,286 persons living in Alameda County, CA initially seen in 1965; comparing frequent church attendees to infrequent attendees:

I. Frequent attendees had lower mortality rates (RH=0.65) (35% lower)

II. During follow-up frequent attendees were:

a. more likely to stop smoking

b. more likely to increase exercising

c. more likely to increase social contacts

d. more likely to stay married

III. Adjusting for the 4 health practices did not significantly

change frequent attendees’ mortality rates

Strawbridge et al. (1997). American Journal of Public Health, 87:957-961.


Summary: Physical Health

  • Better immune/endocrine function (7 of 7)
  • Lower mortality from cancer (5 of 7)
  • Lower blood pressure (14 of 23)
  • Less heart disease (7 of 11)
  • Less stroke (1 of 1)
  • Lower cholesterol (3 of 3)
  • Less cigarette smoking (23 of 25)
  • More likely to exercise (3 of 5)
  • Lower mortality (11 of 14) (1995-2000)
  • Clergy mortality (12 of 13)
  • Less likely to be overweight (0 of 6)
  • Many new studies since 2000

Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001)


Recent Studies - Physical Health Outcomes

  • Religious attendance associated with lower mortality in Mexican-Americans. Hill et al. Journal of Gerontology 2005; 60(2):S102-109
  • Religious attendance associated with slower progression of cognitive impairment with aging in older Mexican-Americans
  • Hill et al. Journal of Gerontology 2006; 61B:P3-P9; Reyes-Ortiz et al. Journal of Gerontology 2007 (in press)
  • Religious behaviors associated with slower progression of Alzheimer’s dis.
  • Kaufman et al. Neurology 2007; 68:1509–1514
  • Fewer surgical complications following cardiac surgery
  • Contrada et al. Health Psychology 2004;23:227-38
  • Greater longevity if live in a religiously affiliated neighborhood
  • Jaffe et al. Annals of Epidemiology 2005;15(10):804-810
  • Religious attendance associated with >90% reduction in meningococcal disease in teenagers, equal to or greater than meningococcal vaccination
  • Tully et al. British Medical Journal 2006; 332(7539):445-450

Recent Studies - Physical Health Outcomes

  • Higher church attendance predicts lower fear of falling in older Mexican-Americans
  • Reyes-Ortiz et al. Aging & Mental Health2006; 10:13-18
  • HIV patients who show increases in spirituality/religion after diagnosis experience higher CD4 counts/ lower viral load and slower disease progression during 4-year follow-up
  • Ironson et al. Journal of General Internal Medicine 2006; 21:S62-68
  • Religion and survival in a secular region. A twenty year follow-up of 734 Danish adults born in 1914.
  • la Cour P, et al. Social Science & Medicine 2006; 62: 157-164
  • Nearly 2,000 Jews over age 70 living in Israel followed for 7 years. Those who attended synagogue regularly were more likely than non-attendees to be alive 7 years later (61% more likely to be alive vs. 41% more likely to be alive for infrequent attendees. Gradient of effect.
  • European Journal of Ageing 4:71-82
  • Over 70 recent studies with positive findings since 2004
  • http\\

Downsides of Religious Involvement:

Body-Mass Index by Religious Group

(based on work of Ken Ferraro)

Southern Baptist 26.25

Protestant--Fundamental 25.72

Protestant—Pietistic (Methodists, etc.) 25.70

Protestant--Non-denominational 25.39

Catholics 25.33

Non-Traditionalist 25.19

None 24.84

Protestant--Reformation Era (Presb, Luth, Epis) 24.79

Jewish 24.72

Non-Christian 24.33

religious struggle 444 hospitalized medical patients followed for 2 years

Religious Struggle444 hospitalized medical patients followed for 2 years

Each of 7 items below rated on a 0 to 3 scale, based on agreement. For every 1 point increase on religious struggle

scale (range 0-21), there was a 6% increase in mortality, independent of physical and mental health

(Arch Intern Med, 2001; 161: 1881-1885)

Wondered whether God had abandoned me

Felt punished by God for my lack of devotion

Wondered what I did for God to punish me

Questioned the God’s love for me

Wondered whether my church had abandoned me

Decided the Devil made this happen

Questioned the power of God




  • The mind and emotions are directly connected to the body’s natural healing mechanisms (immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems)
  • There are scientifically plausible reasons why religion ought to be related to better physical health
  • Religious involvement is related to better physical health
  • The effect is only moderate in size, but has huge public health impact
  • Religion can also have negative effects on physical health, although more research is needed
  • Further research resources (next slide)

Further Resources

  • Spirituality in Patient Care (Templeton Press, 2007)
  • Handbook of Religion and Health (Oxford University Press, 2001)
  • Healing Power of Faith (Simon & Schuster, 2001)
  • Faith and Mental Health (Templeton Press, 2005)
  • The Link Between Religion & Health: Psychoneuroimmunology & the Faith Factor (Oxford University Press, 2002)
  • Handbook of Religion and Mental Health (Academic Press, 1998)
  • In the Wake of Disaster: Religious Responses to Terrorism and Catastrophe (Templeton Press, 2006)
  • Faith in the Future: Religion, Aging & Healthcare in 21st Century (Templeton Press, 2004)
  • The Healing Connection (Templeton Press, 2004)
  • Duke website:

Summer Research Workshop

July and August 2008

Durham, North Carolina

1-day clinical workshops and 5-day intensive research workshops focus on what we know about the relationship between religion and health, applications, how to conduct research and develop an academic career in this area (July 21-25, Aug 11-15, Aug 30) Leading religion-health researchers at Duke, UNC, USC, and elsewhere will give presentations:

-Previous research on religion, spirituality and health

-Strengths and weaknesses of previous research

-Applying findings to clinical practice

-Theological considerations and concerns

-Highest priority studies for future research

-Strengths and weaknesses of religion/spirituality measures

-Designing different types of research projects

-Carrying out and managing a research project

-Writing a grant to NIH or private foundations

-Where to obtain funding for research in this area

-Writing a research paper for publication; getting it published

-Presenting research to professional and public audiences; working with the media

If interested, contact Harold G. Koenig: