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Thirty-nine percent of people across the world attend a religious service every week, but of them, few know just how beneficial religious involvement can be1! As life changes with aging, from physical declines to loss of loved ones, religious involvement can help you remain healthy. No matter your prior involvement or your current abilities, you can experience the benefits of religion. Here are four reasons why you should embrace your faith as a means toward healthy aging.
1. Religious involvement can improve your social well-being
As we age, our social landscapes change as spouses, friends, and other loved ones pass. This experience can be socially isolating5. Research shows that the social structures of religion can combat loneliness from social isolation by increasing the number of meaningful social ties through religious community, replacing some of those lost during the aging process5, 6.
Among older adults, religious involvement is an excellent way to experience and increase your social networks1, 2. For example, attendance at religious services allows congregants to connect, socialize, and help each other. These interactions improve positive relationships between participants and creates a community-focused congregation3. Thus, involvement builds personal connections and creates a support system of people with similar beliefs4.
2. Religious involvement can be excellent for your mental and emotional health
Involvement in religion can improve mental and emotional well-being by buffering the effects of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety7. Research suggests that religious involvement can create a sense of meaning in life which can help individuals cope with the stresses of aging1, 7, 8. Individuals can turn to religion as a support system for dealing with physical illness and despair through lessening its burden through alleviating stress1,2.
3. Religious involvement can benefit your physical well-being
Attending religious services can reduce your risk of developing numerous diseases and physical health issues9. Research has found that religious activities, such as praying regularly, resulted in:
- lower prevalence of hypertension10
- lower blood pressure10
- lower indicators of inflammation11
- lower indicators of cardiovascular outcomes, such as heart attack or failure11
Research also showed that frequent church attendees were less likely to report9:
- heart attack
The lower prevalence of health problems may be due to the emphasis on healthy lifestyles that religion often encourages8. Religious practice can encourage maintenance of a healthy lifestyle by connecting you with other people who value healthy habits12.
4. Religious involvement can help maintain, or even improve, your cognitive function
Religion can encourage behaviors that protect cognition by keeping your mind active9. For example, in one study, researchers found that those who attended church frequently experienced less cognitive decline than those who attended church infrequently10. Attending a place of worship can stimulate you cognitively through activities such as prayer/meditation, sermons, studying scripture, reciting prayers/singing hymns, and socializing with others11, 14. These activities encourage critical thinking and therefore maintain brain connections, which in turn helps to delay cognitive decline14.
Additionally, participating in focused spiritual exercise, such as prayer or listening to a sermon, can train your episodic memory (which helps you remember personal experiences) and improve your mindfulness abilities, such as introspection16. One reason for this is that religious involvement requires both perceptual and communication skills15. Utilizing these varied cognitive faculties keeps your mind active and functioning.
As you've seen, religious involvement has many social, mental/emotional, physical, and cognitive benefits. You can experience these benefits through simply participating within a religious space, performing activities from socializing with others, to studying scripture, to meditation/prayer, so even singing with the choir11, 14. Your religious experience can be personalized to your wants and need, making religion accessible at any age. So, attend a religious service or ponder the meaning of life, and have faith that you will experience healthier aging!
We would love to hear from you! If you engage in religious activities:
- How has religious practice helped you age positively?
- Why did you first engage in religious practice?
- Have you felt healthier than your non-religious friends as you've aged?
Let us know in the comments! If you want to learn more about the positive effects of religion, check out this additional information:
1Moxey, A., McEvoy, M., Bowe, S., & Attia, J. (2011). Spirituality, religion, social support and health among older Australian adults. Australasian Journal On Ageing, 30(2), 82-88. doi:http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-6612.2010.00453.x
2Ramsey, J. L. (2012). Spirituality and aging: Cognitive, affective, and relational pathways to resiliency. Annual Review of Gerontology & Geriatrics, 32, 131-150. doi:https://doi.org/10.1891/0198-8794.32.131
3Wink, P., & Dillon, M. (2008). Religiousness, spirituality, and psychosocial functioning in late adulthood: Findings from a longitudinal study. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, S(1), 102-115. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/1941-1022.S.1.102
4Koenig, H. G. (2012). Religion, spirituality, and health: The research and clinical implications. International Scholarly Research Notices, 2012, e278730. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5402/2012/278730
5Momtaz, Y., Ibrahim, R., Hamid, T., & Yahaya, N. (2010). Mediating effects of social and personal religiosity on the psychological well being of widowed elderly people. Omega Journal of Death and Dying, 61(2), 145-162. doi:https://doi.org/10.2190%2FOM.61.2.d
6Rote, S., Hill, T. D., & Ellison, C. G. (2013 February 1). Religious attendance and loneliness in later life. The Gerontologist, 53(1), 39-50. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gns063
7Reyes-Ortiz, C., Pelaez, M., Koenig, H. G., & Mulligan, T. (2007). Religiosity and self-rated health among Latin American and Caribbean elders. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 37(4), 425-43. doi:https://doi.org/10.2190/PM.37.4.f
8Hosseini, S., Chaurasia, A., & Oremus, M. (2017). The effect of religion and spirituality on cognitive function: A systematic review. Gerontologist, 2017, Vol. 00, No. 00, 1–10 doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/geront/gnx024
9Reyes-Ortiz, C., Berges, I., Raji, M., Koenig, H., Kuo, Y., & Markides, K. (2008). Church attendance mediates the association between depressive symptoms and cognitive functioning among older Mexican Americans. The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, 63(5), 480-486. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/63.5.480
10Koenig, H. G., George, L. K., Hays, J. C., Larson, D. B., Cohen, H. J., & Blazer, D. G. (1998). The relationship between religious activities and blood pressure in older adults. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 28(2), 189-213. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2190/75JM-J234-5JKN-4DQD
11Das, A. & Nairn, S. (2016 March 1). Religious attendance and physiological problems in late life. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 71(2), 291–308, doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbu089
12Koenig, H.G., George, L.K., Cohen, H.J., Hays, J.C., Larson, D.B., & Blazer, D.G. (1998). The relationship between religious activities and cigarette smoking in older adults. Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences, 53A(6), M426-M434. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/gerona/53A.6.M426
13Conrad, C. D. (2008). Chronic stress-induced hippocampal vulnerability: The glucocorticoid vulnerability hypothesis. Reviews in the Neurosciences, 19, 395–411. doi:https://doi.org/10.1515/REVNEURO.2008.19.6.395
15Van Ness, P.H. & Kasl, S.V. (2003). Religion and cognitive dysfunction in an elderly cohort. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 58(1), S21-S29. doi:https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/58.1.S21
16Agli, O., Bailly, N., & Ferrand, C. (2014). Spirituality and religion in older adults with dementia: A systematic review. International Psychogeriatrics, 27(5), 715-725. doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/S1041610214001665
Mari Quanbeck is a junior at St. Olaf College, pursuing an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Religion. She is currently interested in clinical/counseling psychology, educational psychology, and the intersection between psychology and religion. In the future, she hopes to pursue graduate studies and research in educational psychology.
Nina McLarnan is a senior at St. Olaf College, pursuing an undergraduate degree in Psychology. She is interested in behavioral psychology, along with working with underprivileged children. After graduation, she hopes to obtain a Master's of Social Work and work with children to improve their circumstances.
James Wheeler is a senior at St. Olaf College, pursuing an undergraduate degree in Psychology and Media Studies. He is most interested developmental psychology, and how our memories influence our decisions unconsciously. After graduation, he will embark into a career in advertising.