"Nobody knows the trouble I've seen. Nobody knows but Jesus." So goes the verse of a well-known spiritual. And, while nonbelievers may draw little comfort from the sentiment expressed, recent scientific studies indicate that trusting in some power greater than human skill and social institutions can produce measurable benefits for physical and mental health.
For example, geriatric researcher and neurologist Yakir Kaufman reports that suspected Alzheimer's patients whose lifestyles included deep religious faith and practice showed "significantly slower progression of cognitive decline." His findings, based on studies of middle-aged patients in Toronto and Jerusalem, tracked such factors as regular attendance at religious events and private religious activities (such as prayer). Kaufman cautions that additional research is needed to explain the connection between religiosity and mental alertness. Nevertheless, the results so far suggest that "enhancement of spiritual well-being" may provide one more practical approach for fighting memory loss and mental disability. Kaufman's research was presented at the 2005 meeting of the American Academy of Neurology.
In another study, scientists at the University of Chicago are finding that belief in God may improve a person's physical health. Specifically, individuals who report having "a strong relationship with God" appear significantly less likely than nonbelievers to suffer from depression. These findings, part of a much larger study aimed at understanding the connections between longevity and loneliness, suggest that having strong religious beliefs can measurably improve an individual's health, just as social support networks are known to be helpful.
One interesting aspect of these early findings is that religious faith appeared to have much stronger antidepressive benefits for African Americans than for white participants in the study. Team leader John Cacioppo speculates that racial discrimination and related experiences of cultural bias may leave African Americans more alienated from the human society around them, and more likely to place their trust in "a power that supersedes that of the country," namely God.
This Chicago Health, Aging and Social Relations Study, funded in part by the National Institute on Aging, is the first comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort made to explain the relationship between religious attitudes and health. Understanding the reasons why spirituality varies among individuals is important because, as Cacioppo puts it, "strong spirituality, regardless of religion, [produces] measurable effects," including "improved physiological functioning, health and well-being, especially in difficult times. …