Power of belief: Spirituality linked to ‘healthier life, greater longevity’

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BOSTON — A high level of spirituality is associated with better health outcomes, according to research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Scientists report that spirituality helps in reference to both serious illness and overall health. In light of their findings, the authors posit spirituality should be incorporated into various healthcare settings.

What exactly does “spirituality” mean in this research?  Per the International Consensus Conference on Spiritual Care in Health Carespirituality is “the way individuals seek ultimate meaning, purpose, connection, value, or transcendence.” While it may encompass organized religion for many, it can also refer to many other ways of “finding ultimate meaning.”

Examples include forming connections with nature, community, or family.

“This study represents the most rigorous and comprehensive systematic analysis of the modern day literature regarding health and spirituality to date,” says lead study author Tracy Balboni, senior physician at the Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center and professor of radiation oncology at Harvard Medical School, in a statement.. “Our findings indicate that attention to spirituality in serious illness and in health should be a vital part of future whole person-centered care, and the results should stimulate more national discussion and progress on how spirituality can be incorporated into this type of value-sensitive care.”

“Spirituality is important to many patients as they think about their health,” adds Tyler VanderWeele, the John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology in the Departments of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Harvard Chan School. “Focusing on spirituality in health care means caring for the whole person, not just their disease.”

Spirituality should be part of health screenings

To research this nuanced topic, study authors systematically identified and subsequently analyzed all available high-quality evidence pertaining to spirituality in connection with serious illness and health published between January 2000-April 2022. Across 8,946 articles focusing on serious illness, 371 met researchers’ criteria. Meanwhile, another 215 articles (out of 6.485) focusing on health outcomes also met the criteria for inclusion.

Next, a structured, multidisciplinary group of 27 experts called a Delphi panel came together to analyze the strongest collective evidence extracted from those scientific articles. The panel was made up of various experts in both health care/medicine and spirituality. Members represented a wide variety of spiritual/religious views such as Muslim, Catholic, various Christian denominations, Hindu, atheist, and “spiritual but not religious”.

The panel concluded that for a generally healthy person, “spiritual community participation” (attending religious services, for example) is linked to a healthier life, greater longevity, better mental health, and less substance use. Moreover, for many people, spirituality influences key outcomes across illness scenarios, such as quality of life and medical care decisions. In response to these findings, study authors believe spirituality should be more universally accounted for across health care settings.

Doctors and clinicians should also be aware of how much a little bit of spirituality can help. Researchers say that simply asking about a patient’s spirituality can and should be a standard aspect of patient-centered, value-sensitive care. Information gathered from that conversation can then be used to inform further medical decision-making. For example, whether or not to contact a spiritual care specialist. Spiritual care specialists, such as a chaplain, are trained to provide clinical pastoral care to patients in need – regardless of their personal religious affiliation.

“Overlooking spirituality leaves patients feeling disconnected from the health care system and the clinicians trying to care for them,” concludes senior study author Howard Koh, a professor of the Practice of Public Health Leadership at Harvard Chan School. “Integrating spirituality into care can help each person have a better chance of reaching complete well-being and their highest attainable standard of health.”

The study is published in JAMA.