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Spirituality and Health: Can Prayers Really Heal?
Can walking a spiritual path really help you live a longer, healthier life? Larry Dossey, author of the New York Times bestseller Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, certainly thinks so. In this Q&A, the physician and former Chief of Staff of Medical City Dallas Hospital answers our questions about spiritual healing, religion, science and God.
Q. What exactly do you mean when you refer to “spirituality”? Do I have to belong to a church?
A. Spirituality is simply a sense of being connected with something greater than your individual self, whether you call it God, Goddess, Allah or something else. It’s about getting a sense of how you fit into the greater whole — how you find direction and meaning in the universe. It can be a formal religion or it may not be formal at all. Spirituality is not the same as religion: People can be deeply spiritual without being “religious.” It can involve going to church or meditating at home.
Q. How can spirituality impact health?
A. There are a lot of reasons why spirituality is associated with better health and longevity. For one thing, people who are attuned to spirituality often practice good health habits: They’re less likely to smoke or drink, they tend to eat better, and many religions encourage vegetarianism. Basically, people who find a positive meaning in life tend to have better health profiles.
Also, people who belong to spiritually oriented groups have a built-in social network, and research shows that people who have a rich social life have a lower incidence of disease than those who are isolated and spend their lives alone.
Q. Is there science to back this up?
A. There are more than 1,200 studies published in mainstream medical journals that show a profound connection between spiritual practices and health and longevity. They indicate that spiritual people have a lower incidence of all the major diseases — heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. — and live an average of 7–13 years longer than those who don’t follow any spiritual path.
These findings have also influenced how we teach medicine to future doctors. In 1993, only three out of 125 medical schools in the U.S. offered courses in spirituality and health. Now, more than 90 do. And in 1998, the Association of American Medical Colleges began requiring that every graduating student be able to take a spiritual history from a patient and demonstrate an appreciation for the importance of spirituality in health.
Q. What about prayer?
A. I focus on distance healing, which includes prayer, though everyone doesn’t call it that. Some people use the phrase “healing intentions,” or talk about sending out good energy. Many cultures have healers — people who seem to be blessed with a special talent for healing through prayers — but I believe that everyone possesses that power to some degree. It’s not just some special elite group. Our thoughts and intentions can actually manifest out in the real world.
There are studies that show that praying for someone or sending them healing intentions can impact their health. For instance, studies done with AIDS patients have shown that when people pray for them, the patients have a lower incidence of AIDS-related illnesses such as pneumonia and encephalitis and that they have a higher survival rate.
Q. Aren’t most doctors still skeptical of these so-called “miracles”?
A. Skeptics may say that there’s nothing going on here — that it’s just a placebo effect of people who know that other people are sending them healing thoughts. But these results have been duplicated in non-human animals and even in plants. There have been studies where tumors were resolved in animals and where prayer seemed to increase the growth of bacteria in test tubes. As far as I know, the bacteria don’t care that the scientists are praying for them, but it works anyway!
I was taught in medical school that good, scientific doctors don’t believe in any of this — that it was horribly unscientific and a disgrace to even go there. But that seems to be changing. A 2004 survey of more than 1,000 physicians showed that 74 percent believed that miracles had occurred in the past, and that 73 percent believed they still happen today. And more than 50 percent said that they had seen miracles in their own patients — things like spontaneous remission in cancer patients. And I’ve had plenty of doctors tell me that they pray for their patients before surgery. That leads me to believe that there’s a lot more prayer and healing intentions going on in hospitals than anyone knows about.
Q. Is God involved in healing?
A. Science cannot answer this question. It’s beyond scientists’ ability to decide, though they love to try! They don’t have “God meters.” So the God question — that’s up to you, not the scientists.
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