Religion, spirituality, health, and medicine are fundamentally entwined in human life and well-being. Each is important to how we understand life, death, suffering, and healing and to how we make decisions about our health and health care. Historically, religious leaders healed bodies and minds as well as souls. Today in the United States, diverse religious and cultural healing systems interact with a dominant Western medical system in both complimentary and conflicted ways.
Religion and spirituality influence the health and health care of children and adolescents by various means. They shape how youth understand and engage their living and dying, how parents make health care decisions on behalf of their children, and how pediatricians perceive their patients' needs and thus how they practice medicine. Religion and spirituality affect how children and adolescents get sick, how they heal, as well as how they get sick and heal later on as adults. This entry focuses on two subjects: religion's effects on physical health and medicine's growing attention to the spiritual dimensions of healing. The terms religion and spirituality are used interchangeably here because their meanings vary widely, often overlap, and because physicians and other clinical practitioners tend to use spirituality whereas health researchers tend to use religion. Health is understood primarily as a person's physical and mental well-being with a focus on the physical, and medicine (also known as biomedicine) refers to the treatment of disease through conventional Western medical practices.
Religion is increasingly recognized as one psychosocial factor affecting health and well-being much like other psychosocial factors such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, and occupation. As such, religion and health are the subject of a developing body of research being done by a wide array of medical, religious, and sociological researchers. Recent empirical data confirm what many have long assumed, that there is an overall positive relationship between religion and health.
Before examining this data, it is important to understand that relatively little research has focused on the effects of religion on children's or adolescents' health. Most research has studied adults, and often relatively religious adults at that, for example, the elderly and African Americans. Furthermore, many studies have limited their scope to a rather narrow range of religious traditions, most notably Christianity, and to a single medical tradition, i.e., Western biomedicine. The opportunities for future research are many. Research to date finds largely beneficial associations between religion and health in both the short and the long term. More specifically, religion is found to have a positive influence on life expectancy (mortality) and on morbidity. In other words, greater religiosity is associated with living longer and with living with less disease.
Religious leaders, for example, white male Protestant ministers, tend to live longer than the general population. Similarly, members of certain religious communities, for example, Seventh-Day Adventists, live longer than the general population. These lower mortality rates of Seventh-Day Adventists appear to be due in part to their belief-based healthy behaviors that include not using tobacco, alcohol, or caffeine. Religiosity is also inversely associated with heart disease, cholesterol, hypertension, suicide, and physical disability meaning that greater religiosity is associated with lower rates of these diseases.
ADOLESCENT BEHAVIORS RELATED TO HEALTH
Research on religiosity and the effects of religiosity on the physical and mental health of children and adolescents is scarce. The relatively few studies available concentrate primarily on specific health-related behaviors including the use of certain substances-alcohol, tobacco, and illicit drugs-on sexual activity, and on suicide. Given the significant influence of these behaviors on adolescent and, later, on adult health, this behavioral focal point is a fitting start.
Multiple studies, some of them large scale, have found that higher levels of adolescent religiosity are associated with lower levels of use and abuse of cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana, and illicit drugs. In other words, and generally speaking, youth who are more religious "do" fewer drugs. Not surprisingly, they also hold less permissive attitudes toward drug use. Thus adolescent religiosity appears to be a strong protective factor against drug use as well as against pro-use attitudes.
Adolescent religiosity is identified and measured in various ways across these studies. It can mean an adolescent's attendance at religious services, membership in or affiliation with a religious community, and/ or participation in religious youth groups. It can also mean more private religious practices such as personal prayer or belief in the importance of religion. However measured, youth religiosity is associated with less involvement with drugs.