Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 18, 2002
Practising faith leads to longer life, says author
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
Practising your faith could prolong your life, according to researcher Dr. Jeff Levin.
The Kansas-based social epidemiologist and author has tracked hundreds of studies over the past 30 years to find a connection between health and spiritual practices and beliefs, including prayer and attending worship services.
His interest in the subject was triggered by a study in the 1970s of almost 100,000 people, published in the Journal of Chronic Diseases.
Levin said in a talk March 1 sponsored by the Canadian Forces Chaplaincy Division that the findings left him "totally bewildered."
It showed mortality rates significantly lower among those who attended church at least once a week, compared with those who did not attend.
"Not going to church seems to be a health risk factor like smoking, drinking and being overweight," he said.
Levin's research since then has involved hundreds of published studies with up to 90 per cent claiming a positive connection between spirituality and health, he said.
However, Levin ran into stiff opposition in medical circles when he first tried to publish his findings, he said. The prevailing view at the time was that "a person is a sack full of chemicals swirling around and bones jingling."
But the belief that people are more than just a "physical component" has been changing in recent years and health care professionals are more open to discuss spirituality, he said.
In his most recent book God, Faith and Health, Levin writes, "The weight of published evidence overwhelmingly confirms that our spiritual life influences our health. This can no longer be ignored."
According to some studies, people who are religious live about seven years longer than those who are not.
Levin has several theories on why religious people may live longer and healthier lives. It could be that they avoid smoking, alcohol and drugs, or that they have a better social support network, he observed.
Another factor may be that religious people handle their emotions in a more positive way through forgiveness, prayer or meditation that is relaxing.
Optimism and expectation are also traits found in people who have faith in God, he noted, traits that may prolong life.
Levin also recognizes the so-called miracles that he says "science can never prove or disprove."
He recalled a personal experience as a young man when he broke several of his ribs and was expected to take weeks to recover. But he was "all better" by the next morning after an interfaith group prayed for his recovery, he said. "Whether it was a divine blessing or healing love energy, I can't answer."
Regardless, he says, "Spirituality deserves a place on the table as one of the things that influences our health."