By LEE BOWMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
April 06, 2006
The fact is, misery does love company. And the evidence has been mounting for some time that getting well and staying healthy are helped along by having strong social connections.
Consider three studies just out in a week's time:
- Breast cancer patients who lacked close relatives, friends or children were up to five times more likely to die of their breast cancer than women with breast cancer who had 10 or more friends of relatives or six or more children, found one analysis of 2,800 women diagnosed with breast cancer who took part in the Nurses Health Study.
According to Candyce Kroenke, a researcher at the University of California-San Francisco, the findings suggest "friends and family members provide critical support in ways that actually help women survive their breast cancer," an element she terms "beneficial caregiving."
Such caregivers "may be in better shape to talk to clinicians about treatment information, they may give patients rides to the pharmacy or to see their doctors, they may help ensure adequate nutrition or they remind women to take their medications appropriately. These may seem like small things, but they aren't. They make a big difference," Kroenke said. The study appears in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
- Researchers at the University of Chicago found that among older Americans, just being lonely is a major risk factor in increasing blood pressure by as much as 30 points.
The study of 229 people, aged 50 to 68, included a series of questions which sought to determine if each person perceived him or herself as lonely. Even when other risk factors like weight, alcohol consumption, smoking, use of blood pressure medicine and demographics like education and income were factored in, the people who rated high on the loneliness scale had significantly higher blood pressure readings than people with friends and family ties.
"Lonely people differ from non-lonely individuals in their tendency to perceive stressful circumstances as threatening rather than challenging,'' said John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology who co-authored the study, published in the journal Psychology and Aging.
- And a researcher at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School reported in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine that weekly attendance of religious services can extend a person's life by two or three years, an impact nearly as great as getting regular physical exercise or taking statin drugs for the heart.
"This is not to say that religious attendance should replace primary prevention such as exercise or a proven drug therapy," said Dr. Daniel Hall, a resident in general surgery at Pitt, and an ordained Episcopal priest. "It does suggest that regular religious attendance is associated with a substantially longer life expectancy and this warrants further research," he added.
Hall stresses that going to church is "not a mode of medical therapy" and that there are "practical and ethical problems in recommending 'therapeutic' changes in religious behavior."
Indeed, there's a fine line between health care providers "prescribing" social or religious interventions and simply being aware that patients may benefit from connectedness and a spiritual life.
Prescribing prayer has also been in the news lately. The largest study yet (1,800 patients) on the effectiveness of prayer by strangers in helping people to heal showed there was no benefit to the recovery of heart bypass surgery patients.
In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had more complications than those who did not know, according to the results published in late March by the American Heart Journal.
The researchers speculated that patients who knew they were getting prayers from strangers may have worried their conditions were worse than they really were.
Of course, other studies show most Americans have some belief in the power of prayer and a majority pray for their own health and nearly as many have someone else close to them also praying for their health.
So, even though the "intervention" of the prayer study was well defined, there was no way to account for anyone else's prayers.
"They have absolutely no idea how much prayer individuals in any of the groups received," noted Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University School of Medicine in New York.
Dr. Larry Dossey, a retired New Mexico physician who writes and lectures on the healing power of prayer, notes that precise "dosing" or guidelines for administering prayer simply don't exist, yet he applauds the effort to measure its effect, even if the spiritual element can't be directly measured.
"There is no God meter out there," Dossey said. "Science is at its best in asking whether or not something happens, second best at finding out how, and at its pitiful worst in answering why something happens. Everything that counts cannot be counted."
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