Wednesday, May 24, 2006

You say tomato....

This is another one of those science stories that tells us far more about the culture and the biases of the folks who design and report them than about the phenomena studied. The headline: Faith Linked to Lower Blood Pressure

The story:
A spiritual disposition may provide a "buffer" against hypertension, according to the largest all African-American study on the relationship between blood pressure and an active faith.

Presented last week in New York City at the 21st Annual Scientific Meeting of the American Society of Hypertension, the study focused on the effects of religious activity on both diastolic and systolic blood pressure in more than 5,000 African Americans.
Known as Jackson Heart Study, the research involved 5,302 participants aged 35 to 85, two-thirds of whom were women.

The researchers asked participants how often they attended church, watched religious services and immersed themselves in meditation or private prayer.

Other questions addressed participants' interaction with the spiritual in their daily lives and whether they looked to a higher power during times of stress.

Those who professed greater religious participation were more likely to be classified as hypertensive. On average, they had higher body mass index scores and were less likely to take prescribed medications.

Nevertheless, the religiously active participants had significantly lower blood pressure, on average, than those who said religion played a small or no role in their lives.

Female gender, lower socio-economic status, increasing age and lower levels of cortisol -- a biological marker of stress -- were all associated with greater religious participation.

"Our findings show that the integration of religion and spirituality -- attending church and praying -- may buffer individuals exposed to stress and delay the deleterious effects of hypertension," (study author Dr. Sharon B.) Wyatt said.

OK, let's unpack. I'm not going to damn Wyatt for assuming that correlation implies causation, which is of course one of the classic logical fallacies (cum hoc ergo propter hoc). That, after all, is about all we have to go on in these kinds of studies. And I would imagine that spirituality does reduce stress. But the conclusion she drew (and that Discovery trumpets) was the not the only one that would seem to be supported by the data. Couldn't one also fairly say, by the same logic employed here, that religion causes increased obesity, and endangers health by causing people to stop taking medication?

Well, one could. But the public reception one would receive would most likely be rather different.


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