Religion, spirituality and health

Dr. Ken Pargament to delve deeper into topic.

Religion, spirituality and health

By: Jen Sobolewski

Religion, spirituality and health — it’s a topic that has begun to receive more attention after years of neglect. Dr. Kenneth Pargament, a professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University, is working on two major projects hoping to shed new light on the relationship between all three.

Research teams comprised of Pargament and other experts in the field have been awarded in excess of $9 million in grants from The John Templeton Foundation to explore the subject matter.

“The size and scope of these grants are promising signs that studies of religion, spirituality and health have come of age,” Pargament said. “We are now moving beyond the basic question of whether religion and spirituality are tied to health to the more critical and challenging questions of why and how religion and spirituality shape health and well-being.”

“We are now moving beyond the basic question of whether religion and spirituality are tied to health to the more critical and challenging questions of why and how religion and spirituality shape health and well-being.”Templeton awarded $8 million to Pargament in collaboration with Dr. Neal Krause, principal investigator at the University of Michigan, and other researchers at the University of California-Davis, Biola University and the University of Miami, to delve deeper into the topic and help provide some solid explanations for why religion has both positive and negative effects on human health.

The team hopes to address major gaps in the current literature on the subject, including expanding the ages, types of religion and practices of those surveyed. They will look at a 3,000-member sample of people 18 and older from across the country, and will focus on a number of dimensions of religious life.

The researchers will follow people over time and gather data on various health issues — 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 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.

”Much of the research in this area has relied on the self-reports of participants describing their health status,” explained Pargament. “This project will build one of the first windows into the biological mechanisms that explain how religion impacts health.”

The second study is a three-year, $1.4 million grant to study the factors behind religious and spiritual struggles.

"We hope that the knowledge gained from this research will facilitate our efforts to help people encountering spiritual stress and strain."Pargament and collaborators Dr. Julie Exline, principal investigator at Case Western Reserve University, and researchers at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston and Biola University hope to discover why some people struggle with their spirituality and religious beliefs and practices in the face of life’s challenges while others don’t.

The answers, they say, may offer clues that help prevent stress-related health problems, because these strong spiritual conflicts can cause long-term physical and emotional distress.

Pargament noted that, because so little is known in this area, health care professionals often find themselves at a loss when met with people facing spiritual struggles.

"Spiritual struggles can be a source of such deep pain," he said. "We hope that the knowledge gained from this research will facilitate our efforts to help people encountering spiritual stress and strain."

The long-term project will involve separate studies of three populations: college students, U.S. adults age 18 and older, and military veterans who have recently returned from deployment.

The grant will also support a book about spiritual struggles and a review article on the same topic. Funding also covers several smaller, short-term research studies, which will result in a number of research articles.