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Sound Body

Healing faith?

Research explores whether spirituality may be good for the body as well as the soul

By Stephen Smith
October 18, 2010

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When Virgie Aguilar — a 93-year-old church-going, car-driving, wishes-she-was-still-working great-great-grandmother — tells you the Lord moves her, she means it.

“I wake up every day and say, ‘Put one foot before the other.’ It’s not just me as me doing it. It’s a higher power that helps me,’’ Aguilar says. “We can easily say, ‘Oh it hurts,’ or ‘I can’t do it.’ But you say, ‘There is one beyond me. I can do it.’ ’’

Aguilar, voice still smooth as honey, will tell you her faith has been her sustenance. Through births (six children), through deaths (her husband, three of her children). But it took a scientific experiment to show her how a life built on a bedrock of beliefs and a web of social connections might yield very real health benefits.

She was one of more than five dozen Los Angeles women 60 and older who volunteered for a study that sought to figure out whether incorporating religious elements and moral support into a fitness program makes a difference in physical activity. The result: Women who read Scripture passages and prayed together during their classes — and set goals for themselves — walked farther and potentially had lower blood pressure than women whose sessions didn’t emphasize faith.

Just a few days before that study appeared in a medical journal this month, researchers from Italy reported that liver transplant patients who asserted robust faith in God were three times more likely to be alive two years after surgery than those not possessing strong beliefs.

It was another clue — but hardly the solution — to one of the enduring riddles of medicine: Does faith matter when it comes to life and death, health, and sickness? And does it help — or hurt?

“The real question is, is it religiosity itself that’s the issue or faith or the positive feeling of psychology?,’’ says Dr. Michael Grodin, a medical ethics specialist at Boston University School of Public Health. “It may be as much a group phenomenon, collaboration, cooperation, helping each other, having a feeling of community. Who knows? But who cares, at some level, if people are exercising, if liver transplants are having a positive effect.’’

Questions of faith and mysteries of medicine have bewitched and befuddled theologians and scientists for centuries. But understanding how one influences the other is like trying to walk a straight line through a hall of mirrors: dizzying and vexing, and yet deeply exhilarating.

Unlike other medical research, a scientist can’t tell someone to swallow a religion pill. Faith — or not believing — is something years in the making, formed in the crucible of birthright and culture. So conducting gold standard medical trials — randomly assigning some people to be religious and others not — becomes impossible.

And there’s not a simple way to measure faith or religious devotion. In the past, researchers concentrated on attendance at religious ceremonies. But how powerfully does that speak to whether a pilot light of belief glows deep within?

Maybe it’s not spirituality at all. Maybe it’s the communities nurtured by churches, temples, and mosques that provide a cocoon of support.

This much can’t be denied: A significant body of research suggests that for certain medical conditions, notably heart disease, substance abuse, and mood disorders, there is an association between faith and health. And a review of 42 studies published in 2000 concluded that people immersed in religious activities live longer.

“We’re talking about an interesting hint of an association that is worthy of our attention and further research,’’ says Dr. Richard Glickman-Simon, who has reviewed the medical literature on faith and health and lectured about it at Tufts University School of Medicine. “But it’s so complicated that it defies anything like a direct cause-and-effect relationship.’’

Still, he says, the spiritual beliefs of patients are so firmly held and deeply cherished that doctors should regard them much as they would diet or smoking or family history: an important part of diagnosis and treatment.

That, in part, is why hospitals such as Brigham and Women’s have expanded their cadre of chaplains, who regularly conduct a spiritual inventory of patients.

“In today’s world, for some people, being able to talk about their faith is not easy,’’ says Sister Kathleen Gallivan, director of the Brigham’s chaplaincy service, “and hopefully we provide the kind of relationship that helps a person to say, ‘I need God right now.’ ’’

Franco Bonaguidi hears those same pleas at his hospital in Pisa, Italy.

He tends to patients whose lives hang precariously in the balance as they await a new organ to replace one that has failed.

“People living on the border between life and death,’’ says Bonaguidi, a psychologist, “is a very stressful situation.’’

As he heard transplant patients speak of faith, a question nagged: Could the depth of someone’s beliefs predict prospects for survival?

So he asked 179 patients to complete a survey before their surgeries. It asked them to respond to statements such as, “I accepted the situation was not in my hands but in the hands of God.’’ It did not, however, delve into church attendance or specific spiritual practices.

He had spoken to enough patients over the years that he was not surprised when the study, published in the journal Liver Transplantation, found that patients with the strongest belief in God lived longest. And, yet, Bonaguidi does not “recommend increasing the number of prayers a day as a remedy to disease,’’ he says. “We think it is a change in personality. It is an individual change, in the interior, a change in the attitude toward life.’’

Dr. O. Kenrik Duru wondered if he could foster change in patients, too. And he wondered if spirituality was the spark to ignite it.

Duru, a researcher at the University of California-Los Angeles, studies barriers to exercise among older African-Americans. The more he pondered strategies to encourage the sedentary to become active, the more he kept returning to one of the most prominent institutions in the black community: the church.

At three congregations — one Catholic, one AME, one Seventh Day Adventist — he recruited women for a study of exercise and faith. Half took classes that included 45 minutes of physical activity and 45 minutes of scripture readings, prayers, and goal-setting. The other women also exercised but received lectures unrelated to health, such as identity theft.

Six months after starting the study, women whose classes included spiritual components were taking 78 percent more steps each week than the other women, which translated into 2 1/2 more miles. Some began walking groups, promenading among the buff and bronzed on Venice Beach. But Duru acknowledged that researchers couldn’t know for sure what mattered most: prayers, moral support, goal-setting.

“The stuff we have in our arsenal as physicians — our medicine and our surgeries — can’t cure everybody,’’ Duru says. “When patients believe they can do something and there’s support from God and the church and their fellow parishioners, they’re able to do the hard things to become active.’’

The women received small barbells, which Virgie Aguilar continues to use. “Even though at my age, the skin gets a little saggy, I can see the little muscles it helps,’’ she says. “I had my friends make a comment saying I was having arms like President Obama’s wife.’’

Melba Bridges was in the same classes, at Transfiguration Catholic Church. The prayers and the meditation and the connection between women of faith, she says, inspired her to move. And the 91-year-old is still moving today, a few years after the study ended.

“It was uplifting,’’ she says. “Kind of a religious experience. You’re not only physically exercising your body, but your mind and your spirit.’’

Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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Increase in survival rate for Italian liver transplant patients with the strongest faith compared to those with the weakest.

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