Spiritual thinking may help people with HIV live longer. Spirituality has many definitions, but at its core spirituality helps to give life context and meaning, that appears to be true for HIV patients as well. New research, published this month In the Journal of General Internal Medicine, takes a broad look at this issue. 

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Miami and Florida International University, over a 17-year period, found that patients who practiced some form of spirituality survived up to four times longer than those who did not. The study’s subjects were asked about their specific practices - whether they prayed, meditated, or attended religious services; were grateful to God for what they had; or had overcome feelings of “spiritual guilt,” believing God would forgive them for wrongdoing. The study suggests the way people think about the meaning of their lives and their relationship with God can have a positive effect on their health.

About 177 people with HIV, initially in the mid-state of disease, participated in the study. They were given a series of questions and essays to assess their levels of spirituality. Researchers asked study participants if they prayed, meditated or attended religious services. About 20 percent of participants "re-framed" their illness in the language of spirituality. The survival rate of such people was about four times greater than other study participants

Because this is a qualitative study, the results are based on interpretation. Qualitative research, typically does not try to quantify anything or use statistical methods. Rather, it seeks to understand other people’s perspectives and motivations. A major limitation of the study is that it does not determine if positive thinking without the religious component, also would lead to increased survival rates.

Dr. Gail Ironson, the lead researcher of the study has more than 100 publications in the field of behavioral medicine applied to HIV/AIDS. She has directed or co-directed federally funded research studies investigating psychological factors in long survival with HIV/AIDS. In addition, she set up and runs the trauma treatment program at the University of Miami Psychological Services Center, that makes available to the community (on a sliding scale basis) both traditional (PE) and newer (EMDR) approaches to treatment.