April 13, 2005 -- Religious practices and spirituality may slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.
The study is the first to look at religion, spirituality, and Alzheimer's disease, researcher Yakir Kaufman, MD, tells WebMD.
"There are many studies showing the relationship between spirituality and religiosity and other disease outcomes," Kaufman says. "Lately, there have also been a few [suggesting] a relationship between spirituality, religion, and neurological disease."
But the preliminary findings come from a small study and need confirmation, say Kaufman and co-researcher Morris Freedman, MD.
"This must not be overinterpreted; this is only one study," says Freedman, head of neurology and director of the behavioral neurology program at Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care.
Religions Slows Mental Decline
The researchers saw a slower rate of mental decline in Alzheimer's patients with higher levels of religion and spirituality. The researchers presented their findings at the American Academy of Neurology's annual meeting in Miami Beach, Fla.
Kaufman and colleagues used two scales of religion and spirituality. One scale had five items covering religious attendance, private religious practices, and intrinsic religiosity (experiences of the divine and the influence of religious beliefs in daily life). The other scale asked participants to rate their personal level of religiosity or spirituality.
Participants were 68 Alzheimer's patients who were about 78 years old, on average. Most had mild cases of Alzheimer's disease. The group included a mix of ethnicities and backgrounds, with Christians, Jews, a Buddhist, and an atheist, says Kaufman.
Patients were followed for an average of three years. Their scores on mental and neurological tests were noted, showing the disease's progression.
Higher levels of religiosity and spirituality were associated with a slower progression of Alzheimer's disease.
Kaufman worked on the study while on staff at Toronto's Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. Now, he is the director of neurological services at Sarah Herzog Hospital in Jerusalem.
The study's results are "interesting, and not unexpected, actually," says Harold G. Koenig, MD, MHSc, a Duke University professor of psychiatry and associate professor of medicine. Koenig has done extensive research on religion and mental health, but he wasn't involved in this particular project.
Koenig tells WebMD that religion doesn't guarantee health, but that it can bring "comfort, hope, meaning, and purpose," along with support from faith-based communities. That could help religious people cope with stress, illness, or depression, which might reduce their risk of Alzheimer's disease, says Koenig.
General trends don't always apply to everyone, he notes. "You can't conclude every case is going to be like this." Positive mental traits aren't unique to people who consider themselves spiritual, he adds.
Illness can strike anyone and should not be seen as a shortfall of the spirit. "There [are] plenty of ministers that have experienced Alzheimer's," says Koenig. "You can't conclude the opposite from these studies. That's just not the case all the time."
About Alzheimer's Disease
In the U.S., an estimated 4.5 million people have Alzheimer's disease, says the Alzheimer's Association. The progressive brain disease damages parts of the brain involved in memory, intelligence, judgment, language, and behavior.
Alzheimer's disease becomes more common with age. It affects one in 65 U.S. adults older than 65 and nearly half of those older than 85, says the Alzheimer's Association.