Lifestyle Choices - Spirituality
Nourish Your Soul!
Spirituality and religious involvement appear connected to better health outcomes and quality of life, especially in older individuals.
Researchers continue to explore the ways in which spirituality and religion positively influence someone’s health.
This vitality seems to put several risk factors
at bay, resulting in:
- Lower stress
- Positive mood
- Less likelihood of depression
Recent research suggests that religious activities may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, although this effect is probably not nearly as important as the emotional resilience that religious involvement conveys.
In at least three studies in peer-reviewed journals, researchers have found that religious activity is associated with either a slowing of cognitive decline in persons with Alzheimer’s disease or a slowing in memory loss associated with normal aging:
- One study, published in Neurology, followed 70 Canadians (average age 78) with probable Alzheimer’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease with multiple strokes. After taking into account age, gender and education, subjects who scored higher on self-rated spirituality and reported greater involvement in private religious practices such as prayer experienced a significantly lesser rate of cognitive decline.
- In a second study, in the Journals of Gerontology Series B, researchers examined the effects of attending religious services on cognitive functioning in 3,050 older Mexican Americans living in the Texas area. After considering several factors, including psychological distress, chronic diseases, age, gender, education and social engagement, they found that those who attended religious services more frequently experienced a slower rate of cognitive decline during a six-year period than those who did not attend church.
- In the third study, in the Journal of Gerontology, researchers found that frequency of religious attendance among a random sample of 2,812 persons over age 65 years in New Haven, CT predicted lower levels of cognitive dysfunction over the next three years, after weighing many different behavioral, social and biomedical characteristics. Weekly attendees were 36 percent less likely to experience memory decline compared to those who were present less frequently.
Here is how religious involvement might slow memory loss:
- Religious activities, including worshiping, praying and singing, may stimulate memory areas of the brain (such as the temporal lobes) or may increase chemicals in the brain responsible for memory.
- Religious involvement may help people to cope with the anxiety that occurs with early changes in Alzheimer’s disease or with the stresses that accompany normal aging. Having the support of a religious community or active engagement with religious beliefs and activities such as prayer or scripture reading can help to reduce stress, which may in turn reduce the level of cortisol in the body and slow the damage that this chemical has on the memory centers.
- Even more important than the impact on memory loss is the comfort and hope that religion provides to those with the disease and their caregivers. Literally hundreds of studies have demonstrated that the religious person copes better with stress, is less likely to become depressed and overwhelmed by negative circumstances, and experiences more positive emotions than those who are not religiously involved.
Likewise, numerous studies of caregivers of people with dementia have found that religious involvement is associated with better coping and quicker adaptation to the caregiving role.
While a growing body of research suggests that religious involvement is associated with a slower progression of Alzheimer’s disease and the cognitive decline that occurs with aging, much further research is needed to understand what these studies mean.
Click here to read a more extensive version of this review of the research.
Contributed by Harold G. Koenig, M.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, an associate professor of medicine, and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, Durham, NC.
ICAN 2: Investigating Caregivers' Attitudes and Needs asked caregivers how religion and spirituality has impacted their experience in caring for a loved with Alzheimer’s disease. Released in February 2007, the survey was conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of AFA and sponsored by Forest Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Among its findings:
- The caregiving journey led to an increase in religiousness for both religious and non-religious respondents (37 percent), more so among African-American caregivers (48 percent) than Hispanic (36 percent) and other race (26 percent) caregivers.
- Religious respondents are less likely to have become more anxious or stressed out (58 percent vs. non-religious, 65 percent).
- Two-thirds (63 percent) of non-religious respondents said that their spiritual beliefs have a significant impact on their healthcare decisions.
- Generally speaking, respondents were happy with the support they received from their religious leaders, with just over one-third (35 percent) wishing they had more support. However, African-Americans were less pleased—46 percent said they could have used more support, compared to 36 percent Hispanic and 23 percent of other race caregivers.
Physicians were questioned whether religion and spirituality negatively or positively impacts health, in a survey sent to a random sample of 2,000 practicing physicians aged 65 or younger in the United States.
The survey results, reported in the April 9, 2007 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine, found:
- A majority of physicians (56 percent) think that religion and spirituality has much or very much of an influence on health.
- The majority of physicians (85 percent) believe that the influence of religion and spirituality is generally positive.
- Few respondents (6 percent) feel that religion and spirituality change medical outcomes.
- More than three-quarters of respondents (76 percent) believe that religion and spirituality help patients cope.
- More than half (55 percent) said their patients often or always receive emotional or practical support from their religious community.
- A majority (68 percent) believe religion and spirituality rarely or never lead patients to refuse, delay or stop medically-indicated therapy.