Emotional distress, particularly depression, has been shown in other research to negatively affect recovery during a stroke patient's hospitalization or after discharge.
In this study, researchers from Rome interviewed 132 survivors of stroke -- median age: 72.
They asked about the survivors' religious beliefs and spirituality. They also evaluated them for anxiety and depression.
Their finding: The higher the anxiety and depression scores, the lower the religious and spirituality beliefs.
The association held even after the researchers adjusted for other factors that could affect emotional distress, such as the degree of physical functioning after the stroke, marital status, and living conditions.
The study was done by Salvatore Giaquinto, MD, of the San Raffaele Pisana Rehabilitation Center in Rome, and fellow researchers.
Behind the Link
Exactly why strong faith is linked to less distress is not known.
The researchers speculate that people who are active in religious activities may have more social support, and that can positively influence the outcomes in stroke as well as other illnesses.
While most of the patients surveyed were Roman Catholic, the researchers note that religious coping mechanisms have been identified in non-Catholic people as well.
The researchers suggest that the degree of faith and religious beliefs be considered in post-stroke rehab, and that patients be provided spiritual assistance if desired.
The association between religious faith and recovery from illness is not new, says Waguih IsHak, MD, a psychiatrist and medical director of the adult outpatient psychiatry service at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles.
"Studies have been done on faith [and its effect on] medical illness and psychiatric illness," says IsHak. "Studies have been done on the power of prayer, even without [a patient] knowing he is being prayed for."
But faith is not a cure-all, IsHak says. "Stroke can damage brain cells, and that can cause a depression that is not psychiatrically based, but physiologically based," he says. "If there is extensive brain damage, the presumption is, faith is not going to play a huge role."
The Rome study is another piece of evidence that faith can help, he says. But, "If you look at the whole pool of studies, there is conflicting evidence that faith works."
However, he says, the current study uses solid methods and has a respectable sample size.
In Lieu of Faith
If someone does not have strong religious faith, psychotherapy may help them deal with emotional distress after stroke, IsHak says.
Other research has shown a small improvement in mood produced by therapy, but not in overt depression, the Italian authors write.
Among therapy options is a type called cognitive behavioral therapy, which focuses on using positive thoughts to control negative feelings.
The faith study is published online Feb. 16 in Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association.
SOURCES: Waguih IsHak, MD, psychiatrist; and medical director, adult outpatient psychiatry service, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Los Angeles. Giaquinto, S. Stroke: Journal of the American Heart Association; online Feb. 16, 2007.
By Kathleen Doheny
Reviewed by Louise Chang