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Health & Balance

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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.


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.

Researchers, including Koenig, say there are limitations to the conclusions anyone should draw from these studies. It could be that people who attend religious services benefit from the social network they form. "It might be that people in churches and synagogues watch out for others, especially the elderly," encouraging them, for example, to get help if they look sick, Koenig says.

Also, it's known that among today's older men and women, religious belief often leads to less risky behavior, such as less alcohol consumption and smoking. And religious beliefs -- or a strong feeling of spirituality outside of traditional religions -- may improve an individual's ability to cope with the stresses of everyday life and the tribulations of aging, experts say.

Or it could be, McFadden says, that certain personality types cope better with life -- and those are the types of people who also attend services more regularly.

Probing Further

Future research might benefit from new survey questions that scientists developed recently. In October, the National Institute on Aging and the Fetzer Institute released a report on new measurement tests. With these tests, researchers may be able to probe more deeply into the connections between health and spirituality, says Ellen Idler, Ph.D., of Rutgers University in New Jersey, who helped write part of the report.

For example, the new tests ask questions about daily spiritual experiences, private religious practices and beliefs and values -- not just about regular church attendance, as some earlier studies did.

"There are private behaviors, attitudes, public behaviors and activities," Idler says of the aspects of an individual's spiritual life. "It is a tremendous, multidimensional model."

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