A Frontier of Medical Research: Prayer Growing Body of Research Points to a Connection between Faith and Health

Article excerpt

Nurse Ginny Weisz recounts a vivid incident a few years ago, when a baby's heart stopped beating during birth. As the medical team worked for more than 30 minutes to revive the infant, Ms. Weisz prayed intensely.

Suddenly she said firmly out loud, "Father, let this baby live." And, she adds, "I believed He would." The baby revived, and "turned out to be a perfectly normal child."

Weisz has three children and a busy life as a practicing nurse. But she is now considering going back to school to get her PhD in nursing so she can research the effects of prayer on health. Experiences like this among medical professionals are part of a culture shift - still in the fledgling stage - that is driving a new field of research: the links between religious faith and the healing of body and mind. The growing evidence is increasingly pointing to physical- and mental-health benefits for patients who hold spiritual or religious convictions. The several hundred studies that have now been published on the subject cover addictions, patient survival, coping with stress, rate of recovery from illness, and other health-care issues. In his book, "The Faith Factor: Proof of the Healing Power of Prayer," Georgetown University medical professor Dale Matthews says:"Scientific studies show that religious involvement helps people prevent illness, recover from illness, and - most remarkably - live longer. The more religiously committed you are, the more likely you are to benefit." Three recently published studies, discussed this week by 700 heath-care professionals gathered here for a course about "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine," add weight to the findings. * Patients are 12 times more likely to survive open-heart surgery if they depend on their religious faith and social support . * Over a 28-year study period, mortality for frequent attendees of religious services was almost 25 percent lower than for people who attended less frequently. For women, the figure was 35 percent. * Those who attend religious services at least once a week have been shown to have stronger immune system functioning. In discussing spirituality and medical outcomes at the meeting here, David Larson of the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR) called the power of faith "the forgotten factor." He says it has been "neglected and mishandled" because of scientific attitudes toward religion. But new research results, and Americans' own strong belief in God and the power of prayer, are driving researchers and others in the medical community to try to remedy this, he says. A key challenge, however, is the difficulty of defining spirituality and religion. NIHR, a private nonprofit organization, is working with researchers to try to ensure some consistency in the research and to maintain the idea of "a search for the sacred." Still controversial But even as research efforts expand, they remain controversial. Dr. Larson himself calls such research "the anti-tenure factor" - and he's only half joking. "If you study this, you will actually go backward" in your career, he says. Herbert Benson, a pioneer in the field and president of Harvard's Mind/Body Institute, which has sparked meetings like the one here, has lived with controversy for 30 years since he first suggested in a study that meditation produced physiological changes in the body. "The battle is not won," says Harold Koenig, director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University Medical Center. "There is a lot of resistance." The meeting here, sponsored by the Mind/Body Institute and the Institute of Religion at the Texas Medical Center, included a day for health-care professionals to learn about the healing practices of several faiths, including Buddhism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, the Pentecostal faith, and Christian Science. Virginia Harris, chairman of the board of directors of the Christian Science Church, which publishes this newspaper, explored the elements of prayer and how they contribute to spiritual healing of oneself and others. …