For me Christmas is a great excuse to meet with friends and family, exchange presents and eat and drink too much — but I also love the fact that we sing carols, go to church and reflect on God.
I come from a long line of Christian missionaries, some of whom lost their lives in pursuit of their faith, although I must confess that I am an agnostic.
But I do believe that the great religions have a lot to teach us about how to live a good and longer life. And there is plenty of scientific evidence to back this up.
For example, back in 1999 researchers at the University of Colorado looked at data collected from 28,000 people as part of the National Health Interview Survey – which has been monitoring the health of Americans since 1957. As part of that survey participants were asked if they attended any sort of religious service and if so, how often.
Research shows that people who said they went to a church, mosque or synagogue at least once a week lived, on average, seven years longer than those who said they never went
It turned out that people who said they went to a church, mosque or synagogue at least once a week lived, on average, seven years longer than those who said they never went.
A more recent study, published in 2018 with the rather wonderful title, ‘Does Religion Stave Off the Grave?’, researchers at Ohio State university trawled through the obituaries of more than 1,000 people published on newspaper websites between August 2010 and August 2011.
They found that the people whose obituaries mentioned they had some form of religious affiliation lived an average of 5.64 years longer than those whose did not.
Why? Well we know from research that people — including my 93-year-old mother — who are religious, tend to drink and smoke less and generally lead healthier lives.
They are also more likely to do voluntary work and get benefit from belonging to a close-knit, supportive social group — both of which combat loneliness and reduce the risk of depression.
But according to Dr Baldwin Way, an associate professor of psychology who helped set up the obituary study, taking those factors into account still doesn’t account for the size of the longevity effect.
He thinks additional benefit comes from the fact that, ‘many religions promote stress-reducing practices that may improve health, such as gratitude, prayer or meditation’.
On top of that, research shows that experiencing a sense of awe, whether it is from being somewhere beautiful or believing that you are in the presence of God, has a powerful effect on our immune system.
Experiencing a sense of awe, believing that you are in the presence of God, has a powerful effect on our immune system
In 2015, a study of 200 students by the University of California discovered that those who reported experiencing positive emotions, such as awe, had lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins which can cause chronic inflammation and in turn lead to health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, in their blood.
It is worth pointing out that the positive effects of religion seems to depend, in part, on believing in a loving, benevolent deity.
In a striking study of more than 100 HIV-positive patients, by the University of Miami in 2011, patients who saw God as benevolent and forgiving stayed healthier for longer and had higher levels of immune cells than those who saw God as judgmental and punishing.
Similarly, studies have shown that people who have religious beliefs are less likely to develop depression and anxiety, in part because they provide meaning and hope. But when religious beliefs lead to feelings of guilt and failure, this can trigger mental illness.
But what if, like me, you don’t believe in God and rarely go to church?
Well instead of praying you might want to try something called ‘loving-kindness meditation’, where you spend a few minutes each day bringing to mind someone who has been kind to you.
The idea is that you sit quietly somewhere while you quietly meditate and think grateful thoughts about that person.
As Dr Fuschia Sirois, who researches gratitude at the University of Sheffield, recently told me: ‘People who express gratitude on a regular basis are more resistant to anxiety and depression, and it can even help you cope with chronic pain’.
If meditation doesn’t appeal then you could try ‘Three Good Things’: Put a notebook by your bed and every night for a week, write down three things that went well for you that day.
It can be anything from ‘I saw a lovely sunset’ to ‘I had coffee with a friend’. Put in as much detail as possible and include how this made you feel. Research shows this will make you feel better and can improve sleep.
Or you could simply go for a walk somewhere that is green and quiet and take a moment to appreciate the world around you, cultivating a sense of awe.
A 2020 study, published in the journal Emotion, found that going on a 15-minute ‘awe walk’ each week helped boosts positive emotions and reduces stress. Selfies taken throughout the 12-week experiment also showed the participants smiled more.
I hope you have a happy, grateful Christmas.
2022: A year of breakthroughs set to transform medicine
2022 has also brought some of the most remarkable developments in health
This year has witnessed world events of such huge significance that many medical breakthroughs have been overshadowed — but 2022 has also brought some remarkable developments in health.
In January, for example, we learned of the first successful pig-to-human heart transplant. David Bennett, 57, had terminal heart disease and received a pig heart, genetically modified to be compatible in a human, in an operation carried out in the U.S.
With thousands of people dying while waiting on a transplant list, I think this is an important advance. Sadly, David died two months after the operation, but his bravery has shown this approach really can work.
Then in February I wrote about a new device being pioneered in Switzerland that was helping paralysed patients to walk again, with the help of a frame.
The device stimulates nerve cells in the spinal cord – and a few weeks ago the same Swiss team reported that four out of nine patients implanted with similar devices no longer needed to switch on the devices in order to walk. It seems that just a few months of electrical stimulation had ‘rebooted’ specific nerve cells and they were now working by themselves.
This is great news and plans are afoot to conduct bigger trials in 2023.
It has also been good year for vaccine research. A study in June, published in the Lancet, found that Covid-19 vaccines had helped prevent nearly 20 million deaths in their first year of use alone.
Perhaps even more extraordinary is that a couple of weeks ago, the drug company Moderna announced that a cancer vaccine it had developed, based on the mRNA technology used to create its Covid jab, had almost halved the risk of skin cancer returning in a group of 157 patients.
These were patients who had melanomas (a particularly dangerous form of skin cancer) but were at a high risk of developing new tumours because the cancer had already spread. Moderna plans to start a trial involving at least 1,000 patients next year.
And though I am generally sceptical about ‘miracle’ weight-loss drugs, two medicines do seem to make a difference, without causing significant side-effects.
Semaglutide and tirzepatide mimic the actions of a hormone that is normally produced in our guts, called glucagon-like peptide-1. This hormone makes you feel full after a meal by acting on appetite centres in your brain and also by slowing the emptying of your stomach.
In July a study in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that patients given weekly injections of tirzepatide for 18 months lost between 15kg and 20kg, compared to 3kg for those getting a placebo jab. And in December a study by the University of Pittsburgh, using semaglutide on teenagers, produced similar results.
I am a great believer in trying to lose weight through changes in diet rather than medication, but this is certainly an impressive advance.
Reason you don’t enjoy exercise . . .
Exercise prompts the release of the feel-good hormone, dopamine
I have friends whose idea of a good time is to go for a five-mile run but I hate running and do it occasionally only because I know that it is good for me.
At no point do I get a runner’s high or feel anything but pain. I’ve been tested and I get almost no release of feel-good hormones when I go for a run.
This is partly down to genetics, but a recent study in the journal Nature suggests my gut bacteria may also play a part.
U.S. scientists took a group of 106 mice and measured how keenly and how often they voluntarily went for a run on an exercise wheel. They then looked at the make-up of their gut microbiomes and discovered that the keen runners had higher levels of two different types of bacteria, Eubacterium rectale and Coprococcus eutactus.
Investigations revealed that these microbes churn out chemicals known as fatty acid amides, which prompts the release of the feel-good hormone, dopamine, in their brains while they were exercising.
Further studies are planned to see if the same process occurs in humans, with the hope that this could lead to diet-based ways of boosting these exercise-loving bugs and getting people, like me, running — and enjoying it.