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    In God we trust to live healthier and longer
    By Kelly Burke, Religious Affairs Writer
    January 21 2003

    Heathenism is apparently a health hazard, with research pointing to a link between religious conviction and longevity.

    Those who consider the spiritual dimension essential to their lives not only live longer, a study in the latest edition of The Medical Journal of Australia asserts. They are also healthier - with lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and lower rates of some cancers - and less likely to abuse drugs and alcohol.

    But are they having any fun? Probably more, according to Harold Koenig, director and founder of the Centre for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University in the United States, who concludes that godliness also reduces the rate of depression and suicide, as well as increasing the chance of a happy marriage.

    Although Professor Koenig's findings have been drawn from US research, he believes that they are applicable to Australians.

    "Exposing medical students in Australia to the role that religion plays in coping with illness and the research connecting religion and health should not be delayed," he writes in the journal. "There is ample evidence to support some cautious first steps."



    The University of Melbourne's professorial fellow in community health, Hedley Peach, who is also published in the journal, disputes Professor Koenig's assumption that the US findings can be imposed onto a strongly secular Australian society.

    "Religion isn't as important to Australians as it is to Americans," he told the Herald.

    "I doubt more than 25 per cent of Australians are frequent churchgoers, but that doesn't mean we're not spiritual - we just need a broader definition of religion."

    Most of the US-based research on religious practice and well-being appeared to be narrowly defined and Christian-centric, said Professor Peach, who admitted to holding an atheist's perspective.

    "But I'm trying not to let that colour my view," he said. "My concern is that this [research] seems to be saying that it's time doctors got involved and enquired into their patients' spirituality, where a chaplain or social worker might be the more appropriate person."

    While it was important that the medical profession recognised the significance religion played in some patients' ability to cope with illness, he added, there was little justification in an Australian context for doctors to dabble into their patients' spirituality.


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