Diet. Exercise. Stress. We've come a long way in understanding how much the way we live affects our health. Recently, another essential term has been added to the mind-body mix-the spirit.

Our awakening to the role that religious faith can play in health and disease raises a big new question. How can this important dimension be integrated into health care?

Dr. Harold Koenig, one of the country's leading experts in the field of spirituality and health care, answers questions about the relationship between health and spirituality…

Is there scientific evidence that religion is good for your health? Dozens of studies support the idea that religiously involved people live longer. One Duke University study of more than 4,000 men and women found that religious observance-attending services weekly-reduced the risk of dying over a period of six years by more than 25%.

More research conducted at Duke University, the University of Miami, Stanford University and other institutions shows that people who pray, read religious writings and otherwise take part in a spiritual community have better immune function, lower blood pressure and fewer heart attacks than people who don't participate.

How does spirituality confer this benefit? Both reliance on a Higher Being and the social support you get from belonging to a caring community of fellow believers are solid buffers against the wear and tear of life.

We know that faith can provide strong support in times of trouble and that religiously involved people cope better with stress. They're less depressed, less anxious, more optimistic. Praying triggers the relaxation response—a sense of peace, comfort, hopefulness and deep relaxation—which actually reverses the effects of stress.

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