Spirituality May Help People Live Longer
Discover why some believe that older people who regularly attend religious services appear to have better health.
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.
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."
Support for the Inner Self
Even people who don't describe themselves as religious probably can benefit from some of the lessons uncovered by research into spirituality and aging, says Harry R. Moody, Ph.D., a gerontologist and author of The Five Stages of the Soul.
"The message isn't 'Go back to church and you'll live a long time,' but stay connected with people on your own wavelength," says Moody, until recently the director of the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College in New York City.
This could mean, for example, joining small prayer groups not associated with any church, trying personal meditation, writing your life story, searching inside for personal meaning in life as you age and face death, remaining optimistic about life even if age and illness take their toll, and forging social connections with family, friends and others.
"You have to discover what is your subjective way of coping with life and tap into it," Moody says.