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The Role of Spirituality in Aging Well

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Most of us understand the importance of physical activity, eating well and regular medical checkups in order to age well. But the link between spirituality and good health has been less clear and many researchers are taking a closer look at spirituality’s role in health and aging.

 What does it mean to be spiritual?

Spirituality is a very broad tent. To some, it means attending religious services regularly and practicing the traditions of an established religion. To others, it could mean simply being still and allowing the universe to speak to them in that silence – often referred to as meditation. However you define spirituality, it appears to have a positive effect on one’s health.

How faith affects your well-being

In a study conducted at the University of Missouri, researchers gathered people from different faith traditions – including Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and Protestants – to see if there were any differences in health outcomes. They discovered that increased spirituality was “significantly related” to better mental health, regardless of what form the spirituality took. In a collaborative study between professors at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute, researchers reported a direct correlation between the importance of spirituality in a person’s life and the thickness of their cerebral cortex – a part of the brain responsible for sensory perception, language and emotion processing.  An article published in Cancer, a journal of the American Cancer Society, looked at several published studies on the topic of spirituality’s effect on health and found a link between high levels of religious or spiritual beliefs and better physical health among patients with cancer.

Does spirituality really create better health?

So is a person’s faith the cause of their improved health and longer life? Or do spiritual people just live differently, which accounts for these health benefits? To find out, researchers from Ohio State combined data from two different studies to see if the volunteer and social opportunities that religious groups offer might explain the longevity boost. They discovered that this was only part of the reason why religious people lived longer.

 “We found that volunteerism and involvement in social organizations only accounted for a little less than one year of the longevity boost that religious affiliation provided,” said Laura Wallace, lead author of the study. “There’s still a lot of the benefit of religious affiliation that this can’t explain.”

The bottom line is that no one can know for sure why people of faith live longer, more healthful lives – but there is a lot of scientific data that supports the suggestion that there is a correlation between spirituality and health.

 Nontraditional spirituality

What about nontraditional forms of spirituality? Do these provide similar health benefits? One of the most popular forms of nontraditional spirituality is meditation, which is getting a lot of attention from the scientific community. A UCLA study found that people who meditated for an average of 20 years had greater brain volume that non-meditators. In a previous post, we discussed how meditation can help improve your health.

Meditation and dementia

Another study at UCLA discovered that a three-month course of yoga and meditation helped minimize the cognitive issues that often precede Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia – in fact, it was more effective than memory enhancement exercises in improving visual-spatial memory skills and decreasing depression and anxiety.

Increasing spirituality in your life

If you are a member of a religious organization and attend services regularly, you may not need any impetus to increase your spiritual participation. However, not all of us grew up in a religious tradition, so we may find it challenging to suddenly become “spiritual.” One of the easiest ways to reap the benefits of spirituality is simply to become still and focus on your breathing, which is the foundation for most forms of meditation. Become conscious of each inhale and exhale. Start to breathe in more deeply. Get to the point where the length of the inhale and exhale are approximately the same. As your breathing becomes balanced, your mind becomes balanced. By focusing on your breath, you’ll discover that the mind shuts off, giving it – and your entire body – a chance to rejuvenate. You’ll go from a human doing to a human being. There are many resources available to help newcomers to meditation – phone apps, websites, and even Meditation Meetups for those who like group activities.

Taking care of ourselves spiritually can help us approach life more positively and build a resilience that can help us through many of life’s challenges, helping us to age more healthfully.

Categories: Healthy Aging