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It’s time to recognize that focusing on a woman’s physical condition is not an acceptable measure of her overall health

By Valerie Huber

This article originally appeared on Fox News

Today, conversations about women’s health overwhelmingly focus on the importance of physical health, clinical interventions and access to medical care. Yet research suggests that optimal health – true thriving – requires a holistic approach that satisfies the physical, mental, social and spiritual needs of each person.

People suffer harm if even one of these four pillars of well-being is neglected, yet more than 90% of healthcare expenditures around the world treat solely their physical symptoms. Hospitals, procedural interventions and medical access help women survive, yes, but they can’t make women thrive.

Over the last two decades, a significant decline in spirituality – both in the United States and around the world – has created a crisis threatening women’s ability to achieve optimal health. To solve the declining spirituality crisis, we must first raise awareness about the importance of one’s spiritual life and the negative effects of its lack.

Today, approximately 85% of people consider mental health just as important as physical health. In a similar vein, many individuals rate their spiritual health – the ability to practice religion both personally and within their community – as “extremely” or “very important” to their well-being, yet it’s an area of health that is widely underserved and rarely discussed.

Women are and have long been more religious than men as a whole, but set aside the metaphysical or theological questions and consider, for a moment, the empirical ones. Heart disease, for instance, is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, yet active religious practice can decrease the risk factors that cause fatal heart attacks.

Spirituality also improves psychological and social health, thereby decreasing feelings of loneliness and social isolation that can lead to a heightened risk of heart attack and strokes and decreasing the risk of coronary heart disease.

Also, a study of older Americans showed that greater purpose in life was linked to decreased risk of having a stroke, along with increasing individuals’ resilience and empowering them to recover from adversity more quickly. That is a measurable and undeniable improvement on physical health, arguably attainable by way of spiritual care.

In just the past year, 1 in 5 women in the United States reported suffering from a mental health condition. Yet research indicates that those with active spiritual lives, including spiritual community participation, have lower levels of stress and improved mental health, as well as a decreased risk of attempted suicide.

What’s more, religious communities can support better population-wide health outcomes in areas of the world where medical infrastructure and communication is underdeveloped. In nations where little else can directly reach populations suffering from poverty, neglect, widespread disease and even governmental collapse, religious communities fill the gap and their impact endures.

Religious leaders also enjoy a very high level of trust from the communities in which they live and serve. Across 34 African countries, religious leaders were more trusted than any other public leaders — and that trend isn’t an isolated one. Faith leaders have helped foster better health outcomes in the past, and they can be enlisted to do so in the future.

In the course of my work leading the Institute for Women’s Health, I often travel abroad to advocate for the advancement of women’s optimal health and see firsthand the ways in which a robust, well-integrated faith community can explicitly improve a woman’s physical well-being. It can become a thriving logistical hub, where resources get distributed and mutual support can be offered and received. And where an emphasis is placed on the intrinsic value of the most vulnerable women and girls who look to their faith for what is, at times, their only source of hope and peace.

Still, despite overwhelming evidence that we ought to take spiritual health seriously, we largely do not. Similar to the way we once discounted the importance of mental health, we give little weight to our spiritual lives – naively (or blindly) believing that the quality of a person’s physical health and survival is enough. It isn’t. We must begin to more deeply consider that the mere physical well-being of a woman – of any person – is an unacceptable metric of success.

In addition to raising awareness, we must also commit to preserving religious liberty wherever it exists because it is the foundational prerequisite for enhancing spiritual health – the core requirement for a person’s ability to live, speak, and act publicly in accordance with their spiritual beliefs.

After all, over 360 million individuals around the world are persecuted for their faith or cannot worship freely – meaning that they lack freedom to access the type of spiritual life that could make a meaningful difference in their ability to achieve optimal health outcomes.

We’d do well to remember that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Women are irreplaceable as leaders, as mothers, as thinkers and workers, and as the beginning-point of our civilizational future. Strengthening their ability to achieve optimal health and thriving shapes the trajectory of this future and ensures that their social, economic, cultural, and political contributions will continue— both today and for years to come.

Valerie Huber is the founder and president of the Institute for Women’s Health. She previously served as the U.S. Special Representative for Global Women’s Health. Follow her on Twitter @ValerieHuber20 and @IWH4women.

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