Religion makes patients hold on to life

Many think of religion as a source for reassurance and comfort in the face of death. Often the highly religious are expected to be more inclined to accept their end than those without the hope of eternal reward or a sense of divine providence guiding events. However, as the Terri Schiavo case highlighted, the deeply religious regularly opt for extraordinary means to maintain life, even in the face the extreme unlikelihood of recovery. In a new study published in JAMA, and reported in the New York Times, researchers have found that religiously devout patients with terminal cancer “were three times as likely as less religious ones to be put on a mechanical ventilator…during the last weeks of life.” It seems that far from encouraging a peaceful passing, highly religious patients hold on to life whatever the costs, be they monetary or in personal pain for themselves and their loved ones.

Highly religious patients were also less likely to have made any plans for end of life care such as signing a do-not-resuscitate order or preparing a living will. While the majority of all patients did not want heroic life-saving measures, “11.3 percent of highly religious patients received mechanical ventilation during the last week of life, compared with only 3.6 percent of the least religious.”

Researchers at several Boston area medical centers conducted surveys and interviews with 345 "advanced cancer" patients between 2003 and 2007. The majority of patients belonged to a Christian denomination and subjects were followed for an average of about four months before they died.

For the original New York Times article, “Religious Belief Linked to Desire for Aggressive Treatment in Terminal Patients,” by Roni Caryn Rabin, see here.

For the JAMA study, “Religious Coping and Use of Intensive Life-Prolonging Care near Death in Patients with Advanced Cancer,” by Andrea C. Phelps, et al., see here.