WASHINGTON — Spirituality may be the best medicine for people with heart problems, a new study finds. Researchers at Duke University say it can improve the quality of life for heart failure patients.
Numerous studies have shown that spirituality can help improve quality of life for people with chronic diseases such as cancer. The new study concludes that spirituality should become a “potential target” for palliative (pain-relieving) interventions.
“Patients who have heart failure experience a poorer quality of life compared to their peers, with high levels of depression, anxiety and spiritual distress,” says study lead author Dr. Rachel Tobin in a media release.
“Contributing to diminished quality of life is the fact that heart failure, unlike many other chronic diseases, is very unpredictable and can lead to hopelessness, isolation and altered self-image.”
The American College of Cardiology and other major medical bodies recommend palliative care for heart failure patients. Dr. Tobin adds that spirituality is a core area of palliative care research, with doctors looking to identify and address spiritual concerns so they can provide patients with the appropriate religious resources.
However, the study authors note that there have been few studies on spirituality’s impact on patients experiencing heart issues. Moreover, there are no tools available to actually measure its impact.
How do people define spirituality?
Researchers say several definitions describe it as how individuals find meaning and purpose in life, which can be separate from religious beliefs. Specifically, the Institute of Medicine defines spirituality as “the needs and expectations which humans have to find meaning, purpose and value in their life. Such needs can be specifically religious, but even people who have no religious faith or are not members of an organized religion have belief systems that give their lives meaning and purpose.”
The research team conducted a review of 47 articles in order to explore the current knowledge of spirituality in heart failure cases. Dr. Tobin says there were around 10 varying instruments used to measure spirituality, some simple, others complex.
In one trial, spiritual well-being improved in patients randomized to a palliative care intervention compared to usual care. Patients allocated to palliative care had increased quality of life. They were also found to have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Another study found that after a 12-week mail-based psychosocial intervention, patients had higher quality of life, as well as less depression and searching for meaning.
Of the 33 patients included, 85.7 percent felt that the intervention was worthwhile. In a pilot study, spiritual counseling displayed a link to improved quality of life, although there was no control group to determine if the effect was significant.
“The literature suggests not only can spirituality improve quality of life for the patient, it can help support caregivers and potentially help heart failure patients from needing to be readmitted to the hospital,” Tobin says.
“What we have suggested and are now doing is developing a spirituality screening tool, similar to ones used to screen for depression. This can be used to identify heart failure patients in palliative care who are at risk for spiritual distress. However, this is just a start. More research needs to be done.”
The findings are published in the journal JACC: Heart Failure.
South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.