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The Spirituality Link

How religion affects health.

With religion and spirituality prominent in news coverage lately, perhaps it’s time to take a quick look at how, or if, one’s beliefs affect health and well-being in life’s later years.

Most studies on the topic – and there are many – begin by trying to define the terms religion and spirituality. It’s challenging.

“Much debate surrounds the definition of both terms,” according to the National Center for Cultural Competence, a unit of Georgetown University’s Center for Child and Human Development. “The breadth of spirituality and religion along with a lack of clarity and agreement on definitions” hinders research.

The ambiguity comes from spirituality, says an article in Psychology and Aging’s December 2003 issue. The term can apply to anything from traditional religious beliefs to someone seeking a meaning in life.

Generally, religion involves participation in an institution with leaders, traditions, practices and a community of like-minded people. Spirituality is considered more individual and entails one’s search for meaning, sometimes by looking inward but also outward in a community or social projects.

Most Americans age 70-plus are Baptists (21 percent), according to Pew Research Center’s ARIS 2008 Summary Report. The next largest groups are Judaism at 18 percent, Protestant, 14 percent, and Catholic, 13 percent. Americans ages 50 to 69 also are largely Baptist (37 percent), with Pentecostal a close second at 36 percent, then Protestant and Catholic at 28 percent. A minority of both groups report no religion at all.

Overall, more than 90 percent of older Americans consider themselves religious and spiritual, and about 5 percent consider themselves spiritual but not religious, the Merck Manual reports in “Social Issues of the Elderly.” Moreover, 96 percent believe in God or a universal spirit, more than 90 percent pray, and more than 50 percent attend services one or more times per week.

More women than men tend toward religion, and among low-income African American, Native American and Hispanic older adults, formal and informal religious participation is high, according to an overview in “Emotional and Social Development in Late Adulthood.”

What does that mean to you? Studies connect religion and spirituality positively to better health and well-being, although, Merck notes, religion may simply attract healthy people. Experts aren’t sure. Still, a good example: “Having a hopeful, positive attitude about the future helps people with physical problems remain motivated to recover,” it reports.

Pew also reported that 34 percent of adults older than 65 say religion has become more important to them over the years – a number that jumps to 43 percent after an illness or “feeling sad.”

Most studies seem to link religion and spirituality to coping and building social networks, which in turn can improve physical health.

“Spiritual practices tend to improve coping skills and social support, foster feelings of optimism and hope, promote healthy behavior, reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, and encourage a sense of relaxation,” the University of Maryland Medical Center reports. “By alleviating stressful feelings and promoting healing ones, spirituality can positively influence immune, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessels), hormonal, and nervous systems.”

On the downside, religions that instill guilt, shame and fear don’t compel the same benefits as more positive beliefs. And finally, as people age, it becomes harder to get to a service, as reflected in participation numbers.

While it has no formal services, Palos Verdes Senior Living, in Peoria, Arizona, tries to respond to residents’ spiritual needs by either helping to arrange transportation to a local church service, or, if requested, helping arrange clergy to visit.

“The only thing we offer here right now is Catholic communion,” says Michele Scott, Director of Fun. “We’re looking to start up a bible study. And in memory care, we gear Sunday activities around gospel singing.”

Debi Bruni, a Fun Coordinator, agrees with Scott that religion and spirituality, while respected, aren’t a focus. “It isn’t about religion,” she says. “It’s about talking with them and getting them out to see other people.”