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Praying your way to good health?

Want to boost the odds if you're diagnosed with cancer? Getting spiritual can't hurt.
A study found that cancer patients who identified themselves as being religious or having spiritual beliefs reported better physical health and greater ability to perform their usual daily tasks. (Canadian Press)

Nearly one in four Canadians has no religious affiliation, according to Statistics Canada's National Household Survey. Still, a trio of studies published this week in the online edition of the journal Cancer says believers score some tangible health benefits.

Researchers in the U.S. did an analysis of studies involving more than 44,000 patients with cancer.  They found that cancer patients who identified themselves as being religious or having spiritual beliefs reported better physical health and greater ability to perform their usual daily tasks.  Patients who had strong religious beliefs also reported fewer symptoms of cancer.  Not only that, the patients who were devout reported fewer or less intense symptoms from chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

It's one thing to feel better, but what impact does prayer have on the cancer? At least 29 studies have looked at the impact of being religious or spiritual on cancer.  Sixteen found being religious translated into a lower risk of developing cancer or a better prognosis, although two studies found that being more religious meant a significantly worse prognosis. The results from some of these studies can be partially explained by better health behaviours. 

There are other potential health benefits of being devout.  Nine of 13 fairly rigorous studies that looked at heart disease found that being religious lowered the risk of a heart attack.  The lower risk of heart disease was associated with objective evidence of reduced inflammation - an important marker of heart disease. Twenty-four of 39 reasonably high-quality studies found that being religious was associated with lower blood pressure.  Four out of nine studies that looked at strokes found that being religious lowered the risk.  By contrast. one study found significantly more hardening of the arteries that causes strokes.

Recent research has found that being religious means better cognitive function in older people - including those with dementia.

There are several factors that link religious devotion to better health.  Some (but not all) religions have daily precepts that encourage healthy eating.  For those that don't, it's uncanny, but people who are religious tend to have healthier lifestyles.  Studies have shown that they are less likely to smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol - both being risk factors for cancer.  Sixteen of 21 fairly decent quality studies found that religious or spiritual people are more likely to exercise - although two studies came to the opposite conclusion.  Seven of 10 studies found that religious people eat a healthier diet than those who aren't religious. The impact of being religious on weight is decidedly mixed.  Of 25 reasonably high-quality studies, 14 found that devout people are thinner than atheists; however, 11 studies found that religious people are more likely than atheists to be obese.

You can't chalk up all of the benefits of religious or spiritual devotion to healthy habits.  Some of it may be due to an overlap between prayer and mindfulness meditation.  

The prescriptive take-home message depends on what you think about religion. If you have religious or spiritual beliefs, those might help you feel better and do better.  If a patient tells me they think getting cancer has spiritual significance, I might help them explore why they think that's the case.  On the other hand, if they tell me that getting cancer or some other disease is a punishment for bad behavior, I'd try and talk them out of that.  

For atheists, I don't think the take-home is to find religion. Still, I think some them take self-determination to extremes.  I've seen lots of patients who are shocked to get cancer despite doing everything in their power to minimize the risk - as if it's all about eating right and getting exercise.  In that context, I think there's no downside and maybe some health benefits to believing in a higher power.

Dr. Brian Goldman is host of White Coat, Black Art and author of The Secret Language of Doctors.  White Coat, Black Art returns with new episodes this September.  We're moving to Saturdays at 1 pm and Sundays at 630 pm on CBC Radio One.

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