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Loss of Faith 'Increases Risk of Dying'
Religious Struggle, Health Linked In Study

There has been a lot of research suggesting that being religious is good for a person's health.

Earlier research has shown that regular church attendance can lengthen life. Now, a study suggests that struggling with religious beliefs during an illness diminishes the chances of recovering. Persons, whose faith is shaken when they fall ill, are at greater risk of dying, according to a study in two American hospitals. This may be the first study to document the consequences of a loss of faith.

Kenneth I. Pargament of Duke University and colleagues questioned and followed 596 patients aged 55 or older from 1996 to 1997. These patients were admitted to two hospitals in Durham, North Carolina, with a variety of illnesses. Patients who reported that they felt alienated from or unloved by God and attributed their illness to the devil or said they felt abandoned by their church community had a 19 percent to 28 percent increase in the risk of dying within the next two years compared with those who had no such religious doubts, the researchers reported in the Aug. 13-27 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine. That was the case even after the researchers accounted for the patients' relative health, mental health and demographic status.

Those who died had tended to feel "abandoned or punished by God" compared with those who survived illness, the researchers said.

The authors speculated that there could be a variety of explanations for the findings. A religious struggle could somehow directly affect health, perhaps by affecting the immune system. Or it could be that people who would tend to have such struggles would also tend to have emotional or personality differences, or more stress, anxiety and depression. 
"Expressions of dissatisfaction, confusion and discontent with God and religion are not normative in the United States. Thus, individuals who voice religious dissatisfaction and discontent in the midst of their illnesses may alienate themselves from the support and caring of family, friends, clergy and health professionals," the researchers wrote.

"Whenever anyone becomes suddenly ill with a disease that threatens life, or a way of life, they ask `why?' or `why me?' " Harold Koenig, of Duke University, one of the authors of the study said. "Some people experience anger at God for not protecting them or not answering their prayers for healing. Some feel as though God is punishing them and they question God's love for them, and sometimes they feel like others have deserted them as well."

Among those who died, there was no distinction in terms of the severity of the disease that could explain it. Nor did gender, race, brain functioning, independence in daily activities, mood or quality of life provide an explanation. It was as if they simply turned their faces to the wall.

Kenneth Pargemant, a psychologist at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, and the leader of the study, believes that it underlines the need for spiritual assessment and pastoral interventions for patients whose faith is shaken by illness. Increasingly doctors in the US are taking a patient's "spiritual history" and many medical schools have courses to train students on how to do so.

Source: Times (London), Washington Post.

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