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The spiritual side of health

Created date

January 2nd, 2018

Spirituality represents a core domain of well-being and is central to the beliefs and lifestyle choices of many. It often informs our emotional, social, and physical health and has been the topic of numerous scientific studies. As more evidence emerges, there is increasing interest in how we can leverage this powerful force for the betterment of our health.

Several examples in the literature illustrate measurable differences in the health of spiritual people. One general finding is that people who regularly practice some form of spirituality live longer, tend to have a better quality of life, and maintain a sunnier outlook in the face of serious illness. Studies show that cancer patients who are comforted by spiritual beliefs tend to have less pain and are better able to enjoy their lives. Another study of patients who had heart transplants revealed that those who participated in religious activities were more compliant with treatment and had improved physical functioning 12 months after the procedure. They also had less anxiety and higher self-esteem.

Impact of different faiths

I’d like to stress that spirituality is not the same as religion, but the two certainly overlap. Religion provides a set of beliefs and practices that can help shape and define your spiritual life. It’s important for your doctor to know about your religion because your beliefs can affect your health care. For example, people who adhere to tenets of the Jehovah’s Witness faith may wish to abstain from receiving blood, blood products, or anything derived from these in medical care or surgical procedures. People in the Orthodox Jewish faith may want to avoid any medications or products derived from pork.

Because spirituality influences how you cope with illness and affects your overall quality of life, it is an especially important consideration in palliative care, a specialty that has emerged as people are living longer with advanced disease that will eventually be terminal. It may not be beneficial or desirable to aggressively treat such conditions. Thus, palliative care embodies many principles of hospice, such as a focus on comfort care and going beyond physical care to attending to emotional needs of patients and their loved ones. In these instances, spiritual beliefs can help patients cope with the challenges of their medical conditions and improve their quality of life.  

In addition, knowing about patients’ spirituality helps providers understand what can cause emotional distress. This may be evidenced by a patient questioning the meaning of life or a belief that an illness is some sort of “payback” for poor choices made earlier in life. Providers can help in these instances by contacting a mental health provider, social worker, or faith-based leader and asking for their assistance.

One of the primary values of geriatricians is providing whole-person care, which includes your spiritual side. Sharing this aspect of your life can bring you and your provider closer and lead to more meaningful discussions and better decision-making.