I wonder how many readers would find it strange if their GP was to ask them about the role of faith in their lives, or whether they consider themselves to be spiritual or practised a particular religion?
At the present time in the UK, the General Medical Council (GMC) may take a dim view of such a line of questioning. However, there is growing evidence to show how spirituality and religion can, and does, have a positive effect on many aspects of our health and longevity.
In a society that is becoming increasingly secular, those of us who profess a faith, pray, meditate, or attend a place of worship (regardless of whether it be the parish church, mosque or synagogue) are often, at best, misunderstood. Yet there are studies to show that we are most likely to make a successful recovery from illness, have lower incidence of some illnesses, and may live longer than those who are not spiritual or religious.
This column does not allow for a detailed analysis of the definitions of spirituality and religion. However, if we place to one side for the moment the precise meanings, and simply accept that the terms often overlap and encompass a wide range of beliefs and rituals, scientific studies indicate that people following such practices have lower suicide rates, less anxiety and depression, recover faster from depression, are less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, have a greater sense of optimism and general well-being, consider their lives hold greater purpose and meaning, have higher levels of social support, and greater marital stability. They also have better immunity to infections, lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, less heart disease, better recovery rates from heart disease, less sleep problems, lower death rates from cancer, are less likely to smoke and more likely to take regular exercise. Furthermore, regular religious attendance can add an extra seven years to one’s life; equivalent to the gain in longevity seen by non-smokers.
Armed with such important information, the question is how should health professionals make use of it? Being prepared to take a spiritual history may well be the first step. This is not as strange as it sounds, especially if we consider the role of doctors is to become familiar with any issues that may be affecting a person’s health, or may affect their acceptance of certain forms of treatment. The doctor does not have to be personally spiritual or religious, or be of a particular faith to understand the impact of such issues; just as a doctor is not expected to have heart disease to understand and assist someone with heart disease. The important factor is for the doctor to be in a position to assemble the resources required to assist a patient’s recovery; and that may involve calling upon the services of a chaplain, rabbi, imam or other members of a particular faith community. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that the positive role of spirituality and religion in people’s lives should even become an issue for Public Health services.
In 1869, when Charles Darwin wrote about the ‘survival of the fittest’, many thought he was blasphemous and anti-religion. The irony for Darwin and his followers (including contemporary writers such as Richard Dawkins) is that it is now known that the fittest are likely to be those who are religious.
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday 4th October 2012.)