Spirituality Helps Chronically Ill Men and Women Differently

rows of church candles
Spirituality or religion helped men and women cope differently with chronic health conditions and disabilities such as stroke, cancer, spinal cord injury or brain injury. (Image credit: Anna Shakina | shutterstock)

Spirituality improves health outcomes for both men and women who are facing chronic illnesses, but in different ways, a new study shows.

Being involved in religious or spiritual activities improves women's mental health, while men experience better physical health as well as improved mental health.

Numerous previous studies have shown the positive effects of spirituality and religion on health. A 2006 study conducted by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center showed that people who attend religious services weekly live longer than those who do not.

A 2010 University of Wisconsin-Madison study found that prayer can serve as a positive distraction and a way for people to manage hard situations, including illness. Another 2010 study from the University of Toronto-Scarborough found that thinking about God helps believers relieve anxiety during situations where they felt that they'd made a mistake.

The new findings "reinforce the idea that religion/spirituality may help buffer the negative consequences of chronic health conditions," study researcher Stephanie Reid-Arndt, an associate professor of health psychology at the University of Missouri, said in a statement. [Why Religion Makes People Happier (Hint: Not God)]

To delve deeper into the religion-health link, Reid-Arndt and her colleagues looked at the role of gender in using spirituality or religion to cope with chronic health conditions and disabilities such as stroke, cancer, spinal cord injury or brain injury.

Researchers recruited 168 individuals from a Midwestern academic health center ages 18 or older who had chronic health conditions. Sixty-one of the subjects had a traumatic brain injury, 32 were stroke victims, 25 had a spinal cord injury and 25 had cancer. The remaining 25 participants acted as a control group, because they were family clinic patients who were being seen by their primary care physician for routine checkups.

After gauging each participant's level of religiousness or spirituality, the researchers measured their general mental and physical health by asking the subjects to fill out in-depth questionnaires.

Although women are stereotypically regarded as more religious or spiritual than men, the researchers found no differences between men and women in terms of self-reported levels of spiritual experiences, religious practices or congregational support.

"Both genders benefit from social support — the ability to seek help from and rely on others — provided by fellow congregants and involvement in religious organizations," said study researcher Brick Johnstone, a health psychology professor at the university.

How men and women benefit from spirituality is a different story, however. For women, greater mental health was associated with daily spiritual experiences, such as practicing forgiveness and using their religious beliefs to help them handle problems, the researchers found. In addition, believing in a loving, supportive higher power was related to positive mental coping for women with chronic conditions, the study suggests.

Men, on the other hand, seem to benefit most from the social support they receive by being involved in religious activities. Religious and spiritual support can include care from congregations, spiritual interventions, such as religious counseling and forgiveness practices, and assistance from pastors and hospital chaplains.

The findings echo a past study, published Dec. 7, 2010, in the journal American Sociological Review, which found that religious people gain life satisfaction thanks to social networks they build by attending religious services.

Although men and women benefit from religion in varying ways, they both tend to lean on their chosen faith and congregations for spiritual support during difficult times, the new study showed.

"We found that both genders may increase their reliance on spiritual and religious resources as they face increased illness or disability," Johnstone said.

The study is detailed in a recent issue of the Journal of Religion, Disability & Health.

You can follow LiveScience writer Remy Melina on Twitter @remymelina. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience  and on Facebook.

Remy Melina was a staff writer for Live Science from 2010 to 2012. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University where she graduated with honors.