Evidence behind claim of religion-health link is shaky, researchers say

March 13, 2002


Popular claims that religious activity provides health benefits have virtually no grounding in the medical literature, according to an article in the March issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine.

This conclusion sharply contradicts assertions that a large body of evidence indicates that religious people enjoy better physical and mental health.

Belief in the health benefits of religious and spiritual activities is so widespread that many think these activities should be incorporated into clinical practice.

"Nearly 30 U.S. medical schools now include courses on religion, spirituality and health for medical students," notes lead author Richard P. Sloan, Ph.D., professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University. "One Denver-based HMO offers spiritual counseling," he adds.

Sloan and his colleague, Emilia Bagiella, Ph.D., assistant professor of clinical public health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, analyzed the medical literature to determine if, indeed, religion provides a health benefit.

Sloan and Bagiella first tested the claim that hundreds of articles address the possible impact of religion on health. They evaluated every article listed in a medical database that was written in English, published in the year 2000 and responsive to the search term "religion."

The authors found that 83 percent of the 266 articles that they found were "irrelevant to claims of a health advantage associated with religious involvement," Sloan reports, because these studies, while about religion, had nothing to do with an effect of religion on health.

For example, he notes, some studies examined only the association between health and the lifestyle practices -- not the beliefs -- of certain denominations, such as the dietary habits of Seventh-Day Adventists. Other studies examined how health problems influence religious practices, not vice versa.

Sloan and Bagiella then examined two previous reviews of the literature, both citing broad support for the religion-health link. The authors scrutinized only those studies investigating religion's impact on cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure.

Again, the authors found that little of the evidence claimed to link religious practice to better health withstands close scrutiny. "About half of the articles cited in [these] reviews ...were irrelevant," Sloan reports.

"Of those that actually were relevant, many ... had significant methodological flaws," he adds. Others were cited as evidence that that religion benefits health when, in fact, their findings were inconclusive.

Overall, Sloan concludes, "There is little empirical support for claims of health benefits deriving from religious involvement. To suggest otherwise is inconsistent with the literature."
Annals of Behavioral Medicine is the official peer-reviewed publication of The Society of Behavioral Medicine. For information about the journal, contact Robert Kaplan, Ph.D., (858) 534-6058.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health http://www.cfah.org. For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, http://www.eurekalert.org/restricted/reporters/journals/cfah/. For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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