Harvard Research: How Are Spirituality and Health Linked?

Harvard Research: How Are Spirituality and Health Linked?

Spirituality improves medical care for those facing serious illness. And it increases overall health outcomes, including at the population level.

Those claims are based on a review of over two decades of high-quality studies showing the benefits of seeing and cultivating a patient’s spirituality as part of medical care or public health.

The findings, led by researchers from Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program and colleagues from the university’s Health, Religion and Spirituality Initiative, among others, were published earlier this month in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The link between body and soul is not a new discovery, according to Dr. Tracy A. Balboni, co-director of the Harvard initiative and professor of radiation oncology and lead author of the study. She said the association is particularly well known between community forms of spirituality and key outcomes such as reduced all-cause mortality, suicide, depression and substance abuse, as well as enhanced recovery from substance use disorders. .

“There is actually quite a bit of research work in both health – healthy populations – and serious illness that demonstrate clear ways in which spirituality interfaces with well-being, showing many associations worthy of notes with very rigorous research, “said Balboni, who also heads Harvard’s radiation oncology program.

“Spirituality in Serious Illness and Health” is a detailed look at hundreds of studies with thousands of patients to see what research has shown on the link between spirituality and health. The expert groups then analyzed the findings to create recommendations on how to use this relationship for the benefit of both very ill people and public health.

The goal, they said, is “person-centered and value-sensitive care.”

The panels consisted of clinicians, public health experts, researchers, health care leaders, and medical ethics experts. The main priorities generated by the panel in the treatment of people with serious illnesses include:

  • By regularly incorporating spiritual healing into medical care.
  • Include spiritual care education in the training of members of the interdisciplinary medical team.
  • Including specialized spiritual professionals such as chaplains in patient care.

In the field of public health, they suggest:

  • Let doctors consider charities between religious / spiritual communities and health to provide better person-centered care.
  • Increase public health professionals’ awareness of evidence that religious / spiritual community participation is associated with health protection.
  • Recognize spirituality as a social factor linked to health.

Balboni said that spirituality can manifest itself in many ways, not just as a religion. “At least early data would suggest that a community where there is a shared purpose, value and connection with each other might have something similar. It’s just that religious communities tend to do it – this is the core of what they do in general. So I think these are the most common forms. “

He added: “Finding that community that helps nurture and sustain a framework of meaning, purpose and value is critical to our health, well-being and prosperity as human beings.”

Define the need

In a research blog in Psychology Today and the Human Flourishing newsletter, Tyler J. VanderWeele, director of that program, noted “strong evidence that participation in religious service was associated with a lower risk of mortality; less smoking, alcohol and drug use; better mental health; better quality of life; fewer subsequent depressive symptoms and less frequent suicidal behaviors ”.

He wrote that deep immersion in longitudinal studies suggests that those attending church services often have a 27% lower risk of dying in the follow-up and a 33% lower risk of subsequent depression.

“Spirituality or spiritual community therefore seemed to be important in both sickness and health,” said VanderWeele.

The researchers considered high quality studies published since 2000. The criteria for “high quality” included large samples and validated measurements. For health outcomes, the studies also required a longitudinal design. They eliminated studies with “serious or critical” risk of bias.

The panels discussed the implications for health care based on the evidence in the studies, grading it from inconclusive evidence to stronger evidence to establish recommendations.

By the time they went through the purging process, they had reduced nearly 9,000 articles to 371 on serious illnesses. Of nearly 6,500 articles on health outcomes, they included 215.

They found strong evidence that spirituality is important to most patients and that spiritual needs are common, while spiritual healing is not. They also found that patients often desire spiritual care, but spiritual needs are rarely addressed as part of medical care, even though spirituality often influences the medical decisions patients make.

Finally, the research review showed that when spiritual needs are not addressed, the patient’s quality of life is not as good, while providing spiritual assistance provides better outcomes at the end of life.

In real life

Rev. Amy Ziettlow often saw the interplay of faith and medicine in her role as pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Decatur, Illinois. You said the JAMA study “resonates with my daily experience of the congregational ministry.”

Each congregation has homebound and critically ill members, said Reverend Ziettlow, who was not involved in the study. “They live with chronic or acute pain, suffer from loss of memory and physical mobility, and are vulnerable to infections, particularly COVID-19, flu and pneumonia. By definition, “bound at home” means that they are separated from their faith communities, and my role as a pastor aims to remind them that they are still connected to their home church and still connected to the presence of God, “he told Deseret News. by email.

Her example is Mary, who at the age of 96 had trouble walking and was living in a memory care unit when she started hospice last April. Among the COVID-19 restrictions, only family members and Reverend Ziettlow were allowed to visit.

During the weekly, then daily visits, as death approached, “I was a bridge between her secluded room and our bustling sanctuary of worshipers, between her life defined by drugs, medical examinations and physical limitations, and her definite life. from his relationship with God, “said Reverend Ziettlow. “I wore a clerical collar, my cult uniform, which signaled to her and to the staff of the treatment center that ritual actions and words would take place that connected Mary to her ultimate meaning, the story of God’s love and grace.”

Despite her weak memory, Mary still knew the liturgical elements that had nourished her spirit throughout her life, Reverend Ziettlow said. “She recited the Our Father, the Apostle’s Creed and sang together with her favorite hymns of hers, such as ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Amazing Grace'”.

Each visit concluded with the sacrament of communion. “Mary she kept a special plate and napkin that she liked me to use as we celebrated this ritual meal together. We ate, drank and remembered that the presence of God is really always with us ”, recalled the pastor. “His last words to me were: ‘God bless you'”.

Baldoni hopes that the medical community, public health workers and all those who provide service will pay attention to the link between spirituality and health.

Spirituality, he said, “can actually feed the soul of medicine itself. I believe that by better embracing the spiritual aspects of our patients, we are embracing the spiritual aspects of what it means to be a patient’s caregiver ”.

Regarding public health, he said: “As health systems at all levels recognize that humans are spiritual beings and this is an important aspect of prosperity, we can tap into better care for human populations or communities. drawing on the resources of spirituality “.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.