Wrestling with religious beliefs during an illness may put elderly patients at an increased risk of dying, according to the results of a new study. The findings appear in this week's issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Previous research has linked frequent church attendance to reduced risk of death. But this study is the first to examine the effects of negative feelings about religion on patient mortality. Bowling Green State University psychologist Kenneth Pargament and his colleagues looked at 595 individualsmostly Christiansaged 55 or older who had been hospitalized between 1996 and 1997. Patients who reported among other things feeling alienated from God or believing the devil brought about their illness, the researchers found, were associated with an up to 28 percent increase in risk of dying during the two-year follow-up period. Other factors, such as gender, race and diagnosis, did not predict mortality.

People who feel that God is punishing or deserting them, team member Harold Koenig of Duke University notes, "are in troubleand doctors need to know about it." Says Pargament, "This study reminds us that religion is a rich, complex process, one that represents a potent resource for people facing problems and one that can, at times, be a source of problems in itself."