A high level of spirituality appears to be associated with better health among individuals with rheumatoid arthritis and could also help them cope with their illness more effectively, recent study findings suggest.

“Spirituality may be a type of psychological resource that allows individuals to adjust better to living with a chronic illness,” said lead researcher Professor Susan J. Bartlett of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Bartlett and her colleagues studied 77 people, all of whom had rheumatoid arthritis for more than 2 years. The female study participants reported an average of 12 swollen and tender joints while the males had 7 swollen and tender joints, on average. One in four study participants reported clinically significant levels of depressive symptoms.

In general, people with a high level of spirituality–who were also more likely to attend church, pray and read the Bible–rated themselves as healthier and less disabled than their less spiritual peers, and also reported having more positive thoughts, according to Bartlett and her team.

Greater spirituality was also associated with more overall adaptive coping, “meaning that in the face of a serious challenge – like having a chronic illness – folks who are higher in spirituality ‘rise to the challenge’ more easily,” Bartlett said.

The more spiritual individuals were also less passive, showed greater restraint, had more faith in others and drew strength from others more than did their less spiritual peers. The findings held true even after the researchers took the participants’ level of disease activity, age, education, fatigue and ability to function independently into account, Bartlett noted.

Several factors could explain the link between spirituality and well-being, according to Bartlett. “People’s perceptions of themselves and how they are doing play a major role in their happiness,” she explained. “If you perceive having a chronic illness as having meaning and providing an opportunity to learn and grow as a person, it may be much easier to reformulate life priorities and adapt to living with an illness.”

Also, “having a spiritual meaning gives a sense of connectedness to others,” Bartlett said. “Social support is a well-known buffer against stress and emotional problems.”

The researcher pointed out that “relatively little work has been done on spirituality, per se, and most that is available has failed to distinguish between spirituality and religiousness.”

Bartlett distinguishes between the two by describing spirituality as “a belief in a power outside oneself and one’s own existence” and religiousness as “the outward practice of a particular spiritual understanding.” She added, “More scientific work in this area is clearly needed to help us understand how spirituality may facilitate adjustment to living with chronic illness.”

The study findings were presented in California during the Association of Rheumatology Health Professionals’ recent annual meeting.