Why religious people struggle harder to stay alive

Why religious people struggle harder to stay alive March 29, 2009

A recent study has made quite a splash (by the standards of these things) by showing that critically ill religious patients are more likely to want aggressive (or ‘heroic’) treatments in a last-ditched attempt to stave off death. What didn’t get nearly so much attention was another study that helps explain why.

In a nutshell, what the heavily-twittered study showed was that religious patients with advanced cancer were more likely to ask for mechanical ventilation and intensive care. These results have ricocheted around the blogosphere, with some atheists taking them to imply that religious people are afraid of meeting their maker.

That’s not quite how the study’s lead sees it:

“There may be a sense that it is really not in the hands of the doctors to decide when to give up,” study researcher Holly G. Prigerson, PhD, of Boston’s Dana-Farber Cancer Institute tells WebMD. “Refusing some of these very aggressive medical interventions may be seen as giving up on the possibility that God might intervene.” (WebMD)

In fact, it turns out that religious people really are more optimistic that they aren’t going to die.That was the conclusion of a recent study by researchers from the University of South Carolina.

What the South Carolina researchers did was talk to patients in intensive care units (or their surrogates) about their prospects of survival. They found was that patients tended to be more optimistic about their prospects of survival than actually proved the case.

The biggest cause for over-optimism was religious faith. Those who said their religious faith affects their health care decisions were three times more likely to be optimistic about survival than the non-religious.

It’s important to realise that being over-optimistic about your chances of death is not necessarily a good thing. Aggressive treatment can be painful and distressing – for loved ones and for patients. If you are going to die anyway, then it is clearly inappropriate (see Respectful Insolence for more on that angle).

What’s more, religious people with terminal cancer are much less to plan for their deaths. According to the ‘heroic treatments’ study, they are half as likely to make living wills (dealing with how they want to be treated as they die) or to nominate a healthcare proxy to make decisions on their behalf.


ResearchBlogging.orgFord, D., Zapka, J., Gebregziabher, M., Hennessy, W., & Yang, C. (2009). Investigating Critically Ill Patients’ and Families’ Perceptions of Likelihood of Survival Journal of Palliative Medicine, 12 (1), 45-52 DOI: 10.1089/jpm.2008.0183

Andrea C. Phelps, Paul K. Maciejewski, Matthew Nilsson, & et al (2009). Religious Coping and Use of Intensive Life-Prolonging Care Near Death in Patients With Advanced Cancer JAMA, 301 (11), 1140-1147

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