sealPurdue News

May 2001

Purdue researchers study health/faith connection

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Recent research findings indicate the link between health and religious beliefs may be stronger and more deeply intertwined than previously thought.

"Most of the scientific efforts in this area have focused on how religion leads to health, but little is known about the opposite causal process," says Kenneth Ferraro, a professor of sociology and psychological sciences and director of Purdue University's gerontology program. "We wanted to find out if health problems heighten religious seeking, and we discovered that people look toward religion for consolation and support throughout the diagnosis and treatment process."

Ferraro suggests this kind of information could be helpful to doctors and other health care professionals when dealing with patients.

"I think it's good medicine to recognize when this is an important factor in a person's life because a physician can use it as another resource in the total process of rehabilitation," Ferraro says. "It may be especially helpful in certain kinds of practices – geriatrics for instance – where patients are older and have more health problems."

Ferraro and doctoral student Jessica Kelley-Moore used data from the national longitudinal survey "Americans' Changing Lives, Waves I and II," which gathered information on a variety of lifestyle issues from a statistical cross section of the country.

Their first study was published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion late last year and its main findings showed that religious consolation is most likely to be sought by people who practice and identify with a faith, and that chronic disabling conditions are associated with increased religious seeking over time.

"The chronic conditions – the health problems that people don't think they can escape from – were consistent indicators of religious consolation," Ferraro says. "We also saw more seeking from those who had cancer, especially among women."

The findings also indicate that depression is associated with greater seeking in both men and women. While women are more likely to seek spiritual comfort, specifically for health issues, men will turn to it for a wider set of problems, like a health concern combined with financial crisis or unemployment.

The second study, scheduled for publication in the Review of Religious Research this spring, looked at conditions in which non-affiliates – those who indicated no religious preference in the ACL survey – sought spiritual consolation. It showed that while non-affiliates were generally less likely to seek religious consolation than affiliates, those who had some level of religious participation or spirituality were likely to turn to it in a health crisis.

Ferraro believes the results also are useful for what they did not show – that physical and mental health problems cause non-affiliates to seek religious consolation.

"You hear stories of 'deathbed conversions' all the time," Ferraro says. "A person who is facing a life-threatening illness suddenly turns to religion for solace and comfort even though they had no history of religious experience or practice prior to becoming sick. The data does not support that scenario at all."

Kelley-Moore says the two studies show there is a much greater connection between a person's spirituality and their health status than usually gets attention.

"We found that people who are active in their faith use it to help them put the pieces back together and find meaning in their lives when a crisis occurs," Kelley-Moore says. "But even for those who are not currently active but perhaps have experiences from childhood, religion is a part of their cultural tool kit that they can pull out to help them through hard times. People who do not have that component in the tool kit seek out other coping mechanisms."

She says the faith/health connection may be even more important in certain medical specialties.

"A doctor who is working every day with patients who have cancer may be more likely to recognize that a good mental outlook – precipitated by a faith that says it's not all necessarily in your hands – can help along the treatment and healing process," Kelley-Moore says.

But Ferraro notes there is no blank space for a patient's religious convictions on the standard medical history form.

"A physician can't use that information if he or she doesn't know about it," Ferraro says. "But since 82 percent of all participants reported seeking spiritual comfort and support for health-related issues, it might be worth exploring."

Sources: Kenneth Ferraro, (765) 494-4707,

Jessica Kelley-Moore, (765) 494-4701,

Writer: Sharon A. Bowker, (765) 494-9723,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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