For the past 50 years, significant research has focused on the strong link between faith and health. Studies have shown that those who believe in a higher power and that “God is on their side” tend to be healthier, have a lower risk of disease and most importantly, should they become ill, tend to recover more quickly, spend less time in the hospital and have a lower complication rate.

Studies have also shown that a concerted effort to meet the spiritual needs of patients undergoing treatment for a serious illness leads to shorter hospital stays and better outcomes. This research, done with the Veterans Affaires Health System, indicated that not only was health improved but cost savings were substantial.  

Most health care providers believe that it is inappropriate for them to discuss issues of faith with their patients. There is concern that this may imply a wish to impose their beliefs on those of their patient. This view is changing. Studies have shown that in the appropriate setting, virtually all patients welcome a discussion of faith with their physician. This particularly applies to the annual physical and care during a serious or life-threatening illness.

After some thought, the approach I use is simply to ask the patient “Is religion important in your life?” In the most religious of nations, the answer is almost always yes. But to me, it does not matter whether the answer is yes or no, whether the patient is devout, an agnostic or atheist. Because the impact of faith on health is not related to what religion or denomination you belong to, whether you attend religious services or not, but rather on being spiritual. And I have yet to identify anyone, good or bad, who does not believe he is a spiritual human being. And the elements of spirituality that link to health are as follows:

First, seek peace. A stressful and unhappy life leads to illness. Stress is a major contributor to heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, depression and obesity. Living a stress free, happy and purposeful life prolongs life expectancy.

Second, have faith. Not only faith in a higher power but faith in yourself and in the goodness of others. 

Third, be hopeful. Have more hope that the future will be better, our lives richer and our bodies healthier. Should you become ill, simply being hopeful can be a key element to responding to treatment. 

Next, have more love. More than anything, love is the essence of spirituality and the key to longevity. Love assures a better and longer life. Men who are in long-standing, loving, intimate and monogamous relationships live 10 years longer than those who are not. 

While women in relationships do not get quite as large a benefit, they live an average of three years longer. Love is not relegated only to the realm of intimate relationships. Love can be expressed in many ways: between parent and child, student and teacher, doctor and patient, family, friends and community. Without love, there is no life. 

A central component of every faith is to be charitable and more giving. Volunteering 14 hours a week (at any age) prolongs life for five years. Giving your time or money to good causes is an insurance policy to a longer life. Research shows that the more you give in relation to what you have, the greater the benefit. A man of faith once told me that if you are unwilling to give, you cannot receive. Give to others and we all benefit. 

Finally, remember forgiveness. The willingness to forgive others and ask for forgiveness in return may be the most powerful link between spirituality and health. Most of us have great difficulty with forgiveness and it requires work. But, bearing a grudge and carrying the weight of unresolved conflict is a heavy burden to bear. It weighs on your heart and mind, affecting more than just friendships. 

I write this column on the first day of December. To all who read this column, no matter your faith, I hope that you will truly embrace the spirit of Christmas, strive for peace on earth, safety for our loved ones in harm’s way and hope that the New Year brings greater health, prosperity and happiness to all of us..

Dr. David Lipschitz is the director of the Dr. David Health and Wellness Center in Little Rock. To find out more about Dr. David Lipschitz, visit www.drdavidhealth.com