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Spirituality and Health

By Robert F. Bornstein, PhD and Mary A. Languirand, PhD

A central tenet of our book How to Age in Place is the Access-Opportunities-Services (AOS) model-you need access to things like grocery stores and pharmacies, opportunities for engagement (like volunteering and adult education), and services (a dentist that you've grown to trust) to keep you healthy and safe. If access, opportunities, and services are the three pillars of successful aging in place, good medical care might well be the most important service of all. And the key to maintaining good health is being proactive. We know it's difficult - we struggle with this as well - but you should try to make lifestyle changes (like healthier eating habits) that prevent illnesses from occurring in the first place. If symptoms appear, deal with them quickly: Not all diseases are treatable, but most can be managed more effectively if you catch them sooner rather than later.

Beyond the usual proactive interventions and after-the-fact treatments, it's also worthwhile to look beyond the traditional. Many interventions that once seemed avant garde - acupuncture, for example - have proven to be effective for certain medical conditions. Ditto for meditation. Along similar lines, though once considered to be on the fringes of medical science, research on spirituality and health has gone mainstream: A tremendous amount of supportive evidence has accumulated during the past several decades, and the National Institutes of Health now funds research on the links between spirituality and health through their Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

The findings are compelling. For example, studies show that people who attend religious services regularly have healthier immune systems than those who don't, and lower blood pressure as well. Cardiac surgery patients with strong religious ties have higher survival rates than those who don't have strong spiritual connections. One long-term study found that over the course of nearly a decade older adults with the greatest amount of religious involvement showed less depression and fewer illness episodes than similar adults who were not as religious.

So we know that spirituality is associated with better health, but the question remains:
What's the link? Three factors play a role.

  • Spirituality helps people cope with life's challenges through faith; it gives purpose to life, and meaning to challenge, setback, and loss.
  • Religious people have better social support-they have a broader network of people they can turn to in times of trouble.
  • Prayer itself seems to have health-promoting effects: Like meditation, prayer decreases blood pressure, lowers heart rate, and enhances immune function.
 

Robert Bornstein and Mary Languirand are the authors of When Someone You Love Needs Nursing Home, Assisted Living, or In Home Care, which is available at amazon.com, or may be purchased directly from HarperCollins Publishers.

Our latest book is entitled How to Age in Place: Planning for a Happy, Independent, and Financially Secure Retirement, published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House.