Loma Linda researchers obtain $1 million NIH grant to study religion and health
Does being religious really help people cope with stress and enjoy better health? This is just one of the questions a team of Loma Linda University researchers hope to answer with their $1 million Adventist religion and health study (ARHS).
In recent years, scientists have begun to take a closer look at the faith-health connection. So far their findings have been promising. Studies overwhelmingly show that people who attend church regularly have better health and live longer than those who never attend. However, researchers at Loma Linda University believe there is more to the story.
“Research needs to look beyond mere church attendance to gain a deeper understanding of how faith impacts people’s lives,” says Jim Walters, PhD, professor, Faculty of Religion. “Although the existing literature suggests that religion and health are connected, we are still not sure how or why.”
Thus far, studies suggest that church-going may benefit believers’ mental and physical well-being and health in three ways:
1) by providing an important source of social support
2) by discouraging risky behavior (e.g. drinking, smoking, promiscuity) and encouraging healthy habits like nutritious eating and exercise, and
3) by providing churchgoers with a set of beliefs that help them cope positively with daily stress and adversity. It is thought that these beliefs can ultimately reduce the harmful effects of stress on the body and the mind.
However, current studies have a number of scientific limitations. For example, critics argue that in addition to using overly simplistic measures of religiosity such as simple church attendance, most studies have drawn their conclusions from small regional populations and have included only limited numbers of ethnic minorities. Further, other studies have not addressed the underlying psychosocial and biological mechanisms that allow religious beliefs to impact health and quality of life. Researchers with the ARHS believe that this study is in an excellent position to overcome these limitations.
“Our study will go beyond previous research by providing richer measures of religious experience,” says Dr. Walters. “In addition to looking at church attendance, our study will examine how people’s sense of belonging to their church families, their prayer lives, their beliefs about God, and even their Sabbath observance help them cope—or fail to help them cope—with the challenges they face in life.”
The project is also unique in its ability to draw from a large-scale national study that includes both European American and Black/African-American participants. ARHS is a sub-study of the well-known Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2) that is close to its target of enrolling 100,000 participants—30,000 Black/African-Americans and 70,000 non-Blacks from the United States and Canada. Having the opportunity to examine differences that may exist between ethnic groups will provide a significant contribution to the literature since research suggests that religious faith and church involvement may have greater health benefits for Blacks than for Whites. This study may help scientists better understand why.
“An additional benefit of collaborating with the AHS-2 is our ability to supplement the psychological, religious, and physiological data we collect in the ARHS with the extensive lifestyle and health information already obtained in the larger study,” says Jerry Lee, PhD, co-investigator of the study. “This will increase our understanding of how health, lifestyle, and religion all influence each other.”
The five-year project, which began in January 2006, will consist of two main parts. Data collection for psychological manifestations of religion study will begin in August of this year and will involve surveys of 10,000 participants (6,600 Euro-Americans and 3,400 African-Americans) who are enrolled in the AHS-2. This part of the study will focus on the psychological impact of religion on health.
“By January 2007 we hope to launch the biological arm of our study,” adds Gary Fraser, MD, PhD, the principal investigator.
The biological portion will involve 250 Whites and 250 Blacks aged 50 to 95+ who live in the Loma Linda, California, area. The clinical samples gathered in this part of the study will allow investigators to identify associations between religion and biological measures of stress, immune system function, and physical/cognitive function.
This project is a collaboration of researchers from the Schools of Medicine, Public Health, and Science and Technology, and the Faculty of Religion and represents a unique emphasis of Loma Linda University—a wholistic perspective.
Leading this project is Dr. Fraser, an experienced cardiologist and epidemiologist whose years of experience as principal investigator of the Adventist Health Study make him more than qualified to act as project director. Working alongside him as co-principal investigator is Dr. Walters, who brings his religious expertise to the table and oversees day-to-day operations.
Co-investigators include Denise Bellinger, PhD, neuroimmunologist; Terry Butler, PhD, epidemiologist and recruitment specialist; Jerry Lee, PhD, health psychologist; Kelly Morton, PhD, experimental developmental psychologist; John Testerman, MD, PhD, director of clinical laboratory testing; Colwick Wilson, PhD, medical sociologist; and Christopher Ellison, PhD, a medical sociologist from the University of Texas at Austin.
Sandra Brooks, PhD, a post-doctoral fellow, serves as project manager and administrative support for the team.
Providing guidance on the project is what Dr. Walters calls a “stellar” group of consultants who are leaders in the religion/health field. These widely-published scholars include Harold Koenig, MD, founder and director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina; Neal Krause, PhD, a sociologist from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; Teresa Seaman, PhD, epidemiologist, University of California, Los Angeles; Arthur Stone, PhD, health psychologist, State University of New York, Stony Brook; William Strawbridge, PhD, researcher, University of California, San Francisco; and David Williams, medical sociologist, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Both co-investigators and consultants seem confident about the contribution the study will make to the scientific literature.
“This is an important study that takes advantage of a unique opportunity to obtain detailed religious, psychological data on a huge systematically sampled cohort, and is completely unique,” says Dr. Koenig.
Although the study is just beginning, the research team is already hopeful that the project will be funded for an additional five years. Despite its close association with National Cancer Institute funded AHS-2, the ARHS is being funded through a separate grant from the National Institute of Aging. The project was submitted as a $2 million plus grant but was cut by 20 percent, leaving $1.6 million (including 62 percent for indirect costs).
“This project offers an exciting, indeed unprecedented, opportunity to cast new light on the complex association between religion and health,” reflects Dr. Ellison. “It is vitally important and long overdue.”
By Sandra Brooks, PhD