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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 09:49 GMT 10:49 UK
'Religious struggle' could prove fatal
religious imagery
Faith in God may be shaken by illness
Elderly people who are wrestling with their own religious beliefs are more likely to die following illness, say US researchers.

Those who admitted feeling abandoned by God, or who blamed God or the Devil for their poor health increased their risk of death.

The survey was conducted by psychiatrists at Duke University Medical Centre.

People who questioned God's love for them, who questioned God's power, were more likely to die

Dr Harold Koenig, Duke University Medical Center
They quizzed 595 elderly patients who were in hospital - almost all of these said they were Christians, most from conservative Protestant denominations.

The researchers then checked two years later to see how many were still alive.

Patients who had earlier said they felt alienated from God - or who said that the Devil had caused their illness were between 19% and 28% more likely to die.

Patients who felt that they had been abandoned by their own church or faith community were also at increased risk.

There was no other independent factor, such as mood or quality of life, which had a significant effect on risk of death.

Dr Harold Koenig, who led the study, told the BBC: "We wanted to get a better understanding of how a person's religious beliefs affect their health.

"People who questioned God's love for them, who questioned God's power, were more likely to die during the two-year follow-up period."

He said that doctors should be making the religious beliefs of the patient part of a routine medical examination.

"Doctors should learn about the religious beliefs of the patients when they are admitted to the hospital.

"They should take a spiritual history."

There is a growing trend in the US to do just this - two-thirds of medical colleges there have courses which train students in these skills.

The study was published in the journal the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Professor Peter Coleman, from the University of Southampton, said: "Those people who are strong believers and attend church do very well in terms of avoiding depression and have a high sense of meaning in their lives.

"Depressive symptoms are concentrated among those of moderate to weak belief who do not attend church. They did less well than those people who do not have any belief system at all."

Dr Harold Koenig on the BBC's Today Programme
"Doctors should ask about religion."
See also:

11 Aug 98 | Health
'Miracle cure' for heart patients
04 Oct 99 | Health
Faith 'good for mental health'
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