Does Faith Prolong Lifespan While Disbelief Shortens It?
“Nothing in life is more wonderful than faith – the one great moving force which can neither weigh in the balance nor test in the crucible.” – William Osler
Anti-aging experts believe that the future belongs to the scientific marvels of stem cell therapy and regenerative procedures, but believers feel that in addition, the lifestyle changes and spirituality will also help man to live longer. The faith and spirituality do not directly give you extra years to survive but transform you to live peacefully, rightly and long.
Scientific studies have proved that approximately 20 to 30% of the variations in human lifespan can be related to genetics, with the rest due to individual behaviors and environmental factors which can be modified. Dean Ornish even further claims after observing the results of his research, in his best seller book “Spectrum” that, “Here is some good news: Your genes are not your fate… It’s based on our latest research showing that you can actually change how your genes are expressed – Just by changing what you eat and how you live…. In general, turning on (upregulating) the good genes and turning off (downregulating) the harmful ones.” I feel that this can be achieved by healthy physical lifestyle and also a healthy psychological lifestyle that is spirituality and faith.
Faith, Spirituality, and Longevity
Faith and spirituality can change your life and approach towards life in such a positive way that no other practice can do. Spirituality remained a way to deal with life in the East for time immemorial. I always feel and say that West learned about materialism and physical aspect of life in same way as East learned spirituality and faith.
In other words, the West has a lot to teach the East about material matters and the East has a lot to teach West about spirituality – while the West sees Science in God, the East sees God in Science. Sam Harris writes in his best-seller book, “The End of Faith”, that, “We have been slow to recognize the degree to which religious faith perpetuates man’s inhumanity to man. This is not surprising since many of us still believe that faith is an essential component of human life. Two myths now keep faith beyond the fray of rational criticism, and they seem to foster religious extremism and religious moderation equally: (1) most of us believe that there are good things that people get from religious faith (e.g., strong communities, ethical behavior, spiritual experience) that cannot be had elsewhere; (2) many of us also believe that the terrible things that are sometimes done in the name of religion are the products not of faith per se but of our baser natures – forces like greed, hatred, and fear – for which religious beliefs are themselves the best (or even the only) remedy.
People who have strong faith and trust in the divine power of God have less anxiety, stress, and aggression in life which makes them peaceful and calm leading to become connected and relaxed and thus they suffer less from high blood pressure and heart disease. They practice spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation and other relaxation techniques making them healthy and surviving longer. Such persons usually keep away from unhealthy lifestyles such as smoking, alcohol, drugs anger and violence. I feel that spirituality makes a person less aggressive which improves the relationship with family members and friends also, this good relationship in addition to healthy lifestyle can help such persons to survive longer. A Harvard research indicates that meaningful relationship boosts longevity and well being. Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist with Harvard affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital says that “Maintaining meaningful relationship also may play an important role in health, happiness, and longevity?”
It’s only now that a positive link between faith, health and longevity is realized and further studied. The healing power of faith was evident earlier also but it was neglected and scientists and physicians were keeping themselves away from such thoughts. Eliezer S et. al studied the relationship between religious practices and sickness and death and reached a conclusion that religious service reduces the risk of death.
Tyler J Vander Weele published a study in Journal of American Medical Association that, women who frequently attended religious services have a lower risk of death from all causes, including heart disease and cancer than those who do not. Those who attended religious services more than once per week had a 33 percent lower risk of death compared to women who never attended religious service. Women who attended religious services on a weekly basis had a 26 percent lower risk of death, while those who attended services less than once a week had a 13 percent lower risk.
Many studies have shown an association between longevity and religious beliefs. A metanalysis of all studies, both published and unpublished, relating to religious involvement and longevity was carried out in 2000. Forty-two studies were included, involving some 1,26,000 subjects. Active religious involvement increased the chances of living longer by some 29%, and participation in public religious practices, such as church attendance, increased the chance of living longer by 43% (2 of the articles).
Effects of Prayer
Now there is no confusion about the statement that “Faith improves lifespan and those who regularly worship live longer”. It is clear that spirituality, faith, and prayer have a health-protective effect. Sally Brown writes in her best-seller book “Live Longer”, that “Take prayer”.
You may not have said a prayer since you used to ask God to bless mum, dad, and your pet rabbit. Or you may associate it with simply repeating ritualized scripts that don’t make a lot of sense. But prayer is essentially a form of meditation, a time of stillness, that can do quite astonishing things for your well-being. You don’t have to do it on your knees if you don’t want to. The key is setting aside some time to focus your mind.
For the past thirty years, Harvard scientist Dr. Herbett Benson has conducted hundreds of studies on prayer. He focuses specifically on meditation, the Buddhist form of prayer, to understand how the mind affects the body. All forms of prayer, he says, evoke a relaxation response that quells stress, quiets the body, and promotes healing. Brain scans taken when someone is praying show that the limbic system which regulates relaxation, heart rate, blood pressure and metabolism is activated.
A recent longitudinal study from Israel showed that community wealth and religious affiliation had a positive influence on longevity, while another more recent study found that among Americans, religious attendance imparts a seven-year benefit on longevity than to nonattendance. A 2004 study in the USA found over a seven and a half year follow-up period that there was a 30% to 35% reduction in mortality and that 20 to 30% of these may be explained by positive health behaviors among church attendees.
I got a call from a hospital in Gurgaon to attend to a serious surgical condition on a 56-year old female patient, Neelam Gupta (name changed), complaining of abdominal pain. On preliminary examination, I found she had an acute intestinal obstruction of the colon. Later, after ultrasound, CT scan, and endoscopy, I discovered the cause was most probably a malignant tumor in colon. The patient would not agree to surgery. Her condition started deteriorating.
I remembered a saying by Surgeon Sir Fredrick Treves, “It is less dangerous to leap from Cliffton Suspension Bridge than to suffer from acute intestinal obstruction and decline the operation”. However, after eventually getting her consent, I operated upon her and removed the cancerous tumor, including a part of the colon. On the fourth day following surgery, Neelam wanted to know the exact status of her illness and possible outcome. As candidly as I could, I told her she was suffering from advanced cancer, and could ultimately limit her productive lifespan. She was actually relieved to know the truth and thanked me for taking her into confidence. More importantly, however, she wanted me to give her some sort of diagrammatic representation of where her cancer sites had been. The reason? She was planning to pray, asking God to heal the affected areas. I did as she asked and she must have prayed. So did I, of course.
I was moved by her faith in God. She talked to me for 40 months since her operation and she has been calling me once a month just to tell me that she is still alive.
Our successful patients teach us, the doctors, how to heal and reawaken ourselves and our patients and to become better healers. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn writes in “Pathological Anatomy” that, “The link between the development of tumors and the central nervous system has so far been very little studied….. It happens rarely, but there are cases of self-induced healing….. Due to some reason, the tumor starts in the opposite direction, gets smaller, resolves and finally disappears.”
Saint Swami Sivananda is an example of how spirituality prolongs lifespan, born on August 8, 1896, in Behala village of West Bengal, India, Swamiji could be the oldest, living person, approximately 122 years. Though based in Varanasi, he moves around the country and abroad for spiritual discoveries. There are many religious figures and saints who lived long, for more than 100 years. Paul of Thabes lived up to 113 years, was an Egyptian Christian saint. Ancient Greek bishop Charalambos also lived up to 113 years, Jacques Clemens, Dutch Roman Catholic priest lived up to 108 years. Cambodian monk Bhante Dharmawara lived up to 110 years. Edward Howard, American Roman Catholic archbishop lived up to 105 years. Chinese Buddhist, Ben Huan survived up to 105 years. Indian Yoga teacher Indra Devi lived up to 102 years.
Healthy Lifestyles from Spirituality
Theism, faith, and spirituality control your activities and push you towards healthy lifestyles, sattvic thoughts and pious behavior which are beneficial for health and longevity. Believers feel that God is observing all their deeds so their unhealthy activities are checked, which doesn’t happen with non-believers.
Anxiety, depression, and stress leading to sickness is common in nonbelievers due to uncontrolled activities and deeds. They may suffer more with high blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease.
It was studied and confirmed that individuals without a religious affiliation have higher suicidal rates and depression compared to theists. Disbelief and atheism give a life unchecked or without an observer which may easily lead to unhealthy activities leading to psychological problems, stress and sickness. Unhealthy habits like anger, aggression, controversial thoughts lead to sickness such as high blood pressure, risk of heart disease and stroke adversely affecting lifespan. They also have traumatized family relationship and unhealthy life styles such as smoking, alcohol, drug and addiction.
Religious Americans are reported to have a more robust immune system, lower blood pressure, and better recovery times from operation. Attending church provides many potential health advantages including promotion of a healthier lifestyle, improved stress management and better social support. According to some studies, such benefits could explain why religious American live longer.
“I believe the practice of basic spiritual skills is just too important to be left solely to pastoral professionals,” says Dr. Walter Larimore, implying grandly that physicians should be involved in the spiritual lives of their patients. Quoting Arthur Kornhaber, Larimore suggests that excluding religion and spirituality from clinical consultations is malpractice, “To exclude God from a consultation is a form of malpractice. Spirituality is wonder, joy and shouldn’t be left in the clinical closet. Let’s don’t!”
Frederic Luskin’s review, for example, reports that, “Evidence continues to mount that demonstrates the positive value of spiritual and religious factors in maintaining health.” Koenig et al. reports that “Of the 16 studies that have examined the relationship between level of religious involvement and blood pressure, 14 (88 percent) found lower blood pressure among the more religious.”
Harvard Medical School sponsored a conference in 1998, “The Spirituality and Healing in Medicine” which reported that, “86 percent of Americans as a whole, 99 percent of family physicians, and 94 percent of HMO professionals believe that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual and religious practices exercise a major positive role within the healing process. Many scientific evidences now suggest that theism is more conducive to mental and physical health than atheism.
This was also reported in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Mayo Clinic researchers reviewed published studies, meta analysis, systematic reviews that examined the association between religious involvement and spirituality and physical health, mental health, health-related quality of life and other health outcomes. The authors report a majority of 350 studies of physical health and 850 studies of mental health that have used religious and spiritual variables have found that religious involvement and spirituality are associated with better health outcomes.
Where faith is there is courage, there is fortitude, there is steadfastness and strength. Faith bestows that sublime courage that rises superior to the troubles and disappointments of life, that acknowledges no defeat except as a step to victory; that is strong to endure, patient to wait, and energetic to struggle. Light up, then, the lamp of faith in your heart. It will lead you safely through the mists of doubt and the black darkness of despair; along the narrow, thorny ways of sickness and sorrow, and over the treacherous places of temptation and uncertainty.
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