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Spirituality May Help People Live Longer

Discover why some believe that older people who regularly attend religious services appear to have better health.

WebMD Feature

Why do older people who regularly attend religious services appear to live longer and have better health? Is it something about the type of people they are? Or is it something related to their visits to churches or synagogues -- perhaps increased contact with other people?

A growing body of research is beginning to define the complex connections between religious and spiritual beliefs and practices and an individual's physical and psychological health. No one says it's as simple as going to services or "finding religion" later in life. It may be that people who are more involved in religious activities or are personally more spiritual are doing something that makes them feel better emotionally and helps them live longer and more healthily. The question, researchers say, is what exactly are they doing?

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"There is an increasing interest in the subject among researchers and the public," says Susan H. McFadden, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh, who is co-chair of the Religion and Aging interest group of the Gerontological Society on Aging (GSA), a national group of researchers in aging.

Aging experts will discuss religion, spirituality and aging at the GSA annual conference, which starts Nov. 19 in San Francisco. Sessions will include a discussion of a new report -- from the National Institute on Aging and the Fetzer Institute, a Michigan foundation interested in mind/body issues -- that details research on the religious and spiritual dimensions of health.

Go to Church, Live Longer

Among the most recent findings in this area: People who attend religious services at least once a week are less likely to die in a given period of time than people who attend services less often. These results -- published in the August 1999 issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences -- came out of a study examining almost 4,000 North Carolina residents aged 64 to 101.

People who attended religious services at least once a week were 46 percent less likely to die during the six-year study, says lead author Harold G. Koenig, M.D., of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. "When we controlled for such things as age, race, how sick they were and other health and social factors, there was still a 28 percent reduction in mortality," he says.

Koenig, a psychiatrist, says that the regular churchgoers showed a reduction in their mortality rate comparable to that of people who don't smoke over those who do.

Spiritual, Healthy Habits

Other large studies have had similar results. Some smaller studies have also shown that spirituality may be beneficial: People who attend religious services, or who feel they are spiritual, experience lower levels of depression and anxiety; display signs of better health, such as lower blood pressure and fewer strokes; and say they generally feel healthier.

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