Faith and Heart Health

“Spiritual nourishment
is important during times
like this, as is the power
of prayer.”

Growing up, many of us can recall the Sunday mornings spent wrestling into itchy wool sweaters or button-up shirts with a collar. Trying to duck and miss mother’s freshly licked thumb coming our way to wipe food stains from our face while pushing our hair into place. We walked as a family, together, into church those mornings. It’s funny, as an adult, getting ready for church on Sunday morning can still be hectic and rushed, minus mom’s last-minute grooming. The younger version of me would never believe that an older me would attend church from my living room couch. I may have daydreamed about this opportunity in my youth, but sitting in a pew with my brother and sisters between our parents, that idea was pure fiction. Yet, in 2020, this is reality.

I reached out to Rev. Fr. Stepanos Doudoukjian of St. Peter Armenian Church in Watervliet to discuss the connection of faith and heart health. Fr. Stepanos has been serving the community for over 25 years, encouraging young families to embrace the Armenian church and participate on Sunday mornings. He was one of the first people I witnessed adjusting to the challenges of social distancing — moving Sunday Services online with Facebook Live and YouTube videos. “I went into pastoral mode right away,” he recalls. “My family was with me. They like to serve as well; together for about two and a half months, we did services inside the sanctuary. When the weather changed, we were given the okay to move outdoors. We did that for about a month and a half. Most recently, we have met underneath our pavilion where people can meet – physically distanced – and participate in services.”

How church affects heart health

There is plenty of scientific evidence on how regular worship/fellowship attendance is good for the body and soul. Overall, experts have found that people who embrace a religious lifestyle are more likely to take better care of themselves. A study that spanned three decades, following 2,600 California residents who reported weekly religious attendance had strong mental health, increased social relationships, and marital stability – all factors to a long, healthy life. The study’s lead author, Dr. William J. Strawbridge, noted that “the specific mechanisms involved are worth understanding because thee may be broadly generalizable to individual and community health promotion endeavors.” Examples of these would be sponsoring smoking cessation programs, the concept of viewing one’s body with respect, relationship building opportunities, a supportive friendship/community dynamic, a stronger sense of self-control, and increased self-esteem. These good health behaviors intervene “before illness strikes and provide effective self-care treatment strategies when it does.”

Jewish mother and son lighting menorah

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya from Pexels

A Vanderbilt University study explored the old saying, “too blessed to be stressed.” Investigators from the school’s Center for Research on Men’s Health examined the relationship between attending church, stress, and causes of death in middle-aged adults. They found that people who attend worship service reduce their mortality risk by 55%, while those who did not attend church at all were twice as likely to die prematurely. As we have previously reported, one of the secrets of the world’s longest-living people, is a purpose of life and the sense of belonging that comes when attending faith-based services four times a month (no matter the denomination) add up to 14 years of life expectancy. After performing a funeral service for a partitioner who was 101 years old, Fr. Stepanos realized Faith’s evidence in longer life. “We have a lot of elderly, a lot of people who continue to live well in their 80s and 90s. I have always been intrigued that people in our church community tend to live longer.”

The role of spirituality during a pandemic

April has many religious holidays, from Easter to Passover and Ramadan (May 5th), that typically bring parishioners to Sunday services. In years past, sermons and messages would focus on passages of scripture that recount historical times of struggle, oppression, and redemption. The coronavirus pandemic presented real-life situations that left Americans asking for help. Fr. Stepanos recognized the uniqueness of our time when preparing his sermons. “I tapped into my concerns and worries, and also those of our people. I have stayed in contact with them to hear their concerns.”

Man praying

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

As researchers and drug companies race to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, many Americans have turned to prayer, seeking intervention from a higher power to deliver relief. “Spiritual nourishment is important during times like this, as is the power of prayer,” Fr. Stepanos reminded his congregation. The Kansas City Heart Rhythm Institute is currently investigating the use of a “universal” prayer offered to hospitalized coronavirus patients by five religious denominations (Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism) in addition to health care. The study began in June with a completion date of August 31st. The study’s lead analyst is a cardiologist, Dr. Dhanunjaya Lakkireddy. “I believe in the power of all religions,” he told NPR. Lakkireddy, like many spiritual leaders, believes in miracles. Fr. Stepanos echoed the effect of prayer in medicine. “Faith is important in recovery. The Bible, our Faith, our liturgy, all speak to the fact that God is not separated from us even in the midst of this pandemic. Nothing can do that to those that believe.”

Written by Michael Arce, Host of HeartTalk presented by Capital Cardiology Associates