U-M to lead major effort to solidify research on religion and health

ANN ARBOR--The relationship between religion, spirituality and health has received considerable attention in recent years but the array of studies has fallen short of establishing solid explanations for why religion has both positive and negative effects on human physiology.

With an $8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, a University of Michigan researcher and four colleagues plan to provide some structure to the field, with goals to better pinpoint the relationship and to influence future research practice on the subject.

Neal Krause, the Marshall H. Becker Collegiate Professor in the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education at the U-M School of Public Health, and colleagues will conduct a landmark spirituality and health survey as one component of a plan to address a field that has not yet established cause and effect between religion and health.

Krause said problems with methodology, including small sample sizes, and other challenges withquality have plagued much of the research to date.

"Research has shown, for example, that people who go to church more often have better health. But we don’t know if this means that religion makes people healthier or whether only healthy people are able to get to church in the first place," Krause said. "In order to unravel this and a host of similar issues, you have to follow the same people over time.

"There is convincing evidence that religion can be associated with better health, but the literature provides a complex picture. It is more accurate to say that religion appears to improve the health of some but not all people. In fact, there is some evidence that there may be harmful aspects of religious involvement for some individuals.

"The only way to unify a field is to develop a deliberate plan to do so. So far this has not happened in the religion and health field."

With the grant, Krause and colleagues will address major gaps in the literature, including expanding the ages, types of religion and practices of those surveyed. A number of previous studies focused on college students or a small segment that does not represent the general population, such as a specific denomination. Research also often centers on a single aspect of religion, such as prayer.

The team will draw upon a 3,000-member sample of people 18 and older from across the U.S., and will focus on a number of dimensions of religious life. The research sets up the infrastructure to follow people over time and gather data on various biomarkers--blood pressure, height, weight, waist circumference, immune function, glucose levels, inflammation associated with heart disease--and measure them against a full complement of religion measures.

Another goal of the program is to establish a structure of research modules that will allow others to build upon their work. One way they will engage others is to establish a unique competition for new investigators who will propose research that will draw upon the core team’s support.

Not all of the team’s goals will be met with this initial grant that spans three years, but Krause is optimistic there will be additional phases of the program.

"Religion stands at the juncture of key concerns in life," he said. "It’s where many turn to get answers to the inevitable big questions in life--questions that have been linked to health in their own right.We are setting up the infrastructure for an ongoing study that will extend for what we hope is quite some time."

Other team members are Robert Emmons, University of California-Davis; Peter Hill, Biola University; Gail Ironson, University of Miami; and Kenneth Pargament, Bowling Green State University.