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?
"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.
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.