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How Religion and Spirituality Are Linked to Health in Seniors

William Mick | Nov 15, 2018

Religion & Spirituality Benefits For Seniors

The winter months include some of the most important religious holidays in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Since religion and spirituality play such a key role in the lives of seniors—and have an evidence-based effect on their physical and cognitive health—make sure you provide support for older adults during the holidays that allows faith to sit at the table.

Religion Versus Spirituality

It's common for young people to say they are spiritual but not religious, and that's often the case with seniors. Religion and spirituality are both types of belief. Religion is based more on dogma and organized faith structures. Spirituality is a looser belief in a higher power with fewer rules and rituals. Scientists use organized religious activity (ORA) and non-organized religious activity (NORA) to differentiate between people who engage in religion and spirituality.

More than 90% of older people identify as religious or spiritual, an overwhelming number compared to the general population. In addition, nearly half of all seniors attend religious services at least once a week. For older adults, their religious community is the largest source of social support outside of their family.

The Health Benefits Of Faith

Multiple studies have confirmed that religious or spiritual people have better overall health than nonreligious people- both mental and physical health. According to a study by Merck, religious belief may provide:

• A positive and hopeful attitude about life and illness, which tends to lead to better health outcomes

• A sense of meaning and purpose in life, which affects health behaviors and social and family relationships

• A greater ability to cope with illness and disability

Research summarized in Mayo Clinic Proceedings noted that religious/spiritual people live longer and exhibit less cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and lower blood pressure. Perhaps because they tend to respect authority and follow the rules and guidelines, people of faith generally eat healthier, exercise more, smoke less, and see their doctor for preventive screenings.

Maybe the most significant benefit of faith life in seniors is its impact on mental health. According to a study in International Psychogeriatrics, “Spirituality and religion appear to slow cognitive decline and help people use coping strategies to deal with their disease and have a better quality of life.” Religious belief seems to help caregivers cope as well. The Merck report states, “One study of caregivers of people with Alzheimer's disease or terminal cancer found that caregivers with a strong religious faith and many social contacts were better able to cope with the stresses of caregiving.”

Use Religious Holidays To Promote Community & Belonging

Belonging to a religious or spiritual group instills a natural sense of community in its members. That's important for older people as it helps them stay connected with others and avoid social isolation. Less loneliness and depression—and more hope—help seniors navigate tough times, such as the loss of loved ones and stress due to health or financial concerns.

Religious observances around holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, and others can help seniors strengthen their relationships when participating in social events, faith groups, volunteer activities, or charitable causes. It's a virtuous circle as members of the community support each other. The Merck study notes, “Increased social contact for older people increases the likelihood that disease will be detected early and that older people will comply with treatment regimens because community members interact with them and ask them questions about their health and medical care. Older people with such community networks are less likely to neglect themselves.”

Some therapies outside the reach of modern medicine positively impact seniors' health and happiness. Since religion and spirituality seem effective in helping older adults maintain both mind and body, you should ensure senior believers have every opportunity to participate in their faith community of choice during the holidays and throughout the year.

References:

Religion and Spirituality in Older People

Spirituality and Religion In Older Adults With Dementia: A Systematic Review

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