A growing body of research has made it clear: Spirituality is related to better health as people age.
There are some things that, generally speaking, humans intuitively understand will lead to better health. A good diet, a low-stress life and exercise are three obvious examples of things that can keep us healthy as we age. However, living a long life is more than that, and many other factors can play a role in leading to a healthier life. One such example is spirituality, and a growing body of research indicates that a strong spiritual life can be positively linked to better health and a higher standard of living.
What, Exactly, Is Spirituality?
Spirituality has a variety of definitions and often means different things to different people. However, generally speaking, it is defined as a connection to something deeper than ourselves and a belief that all humans are connected. The connections that resonate with us may vary: It may be God, religion, shared values or something else.
A variety of practices are associated with this concept. This may include saying prayers, attending religious services or practicing meditation.
It’s also important to understand that a deeply held belief and religion are not identical. There is no question that people who are religious are often highly spiritual, but someone can be religious without feeling deeply spiritual, and the reverse is also true.
Spirituality and Better Health
The evidence is strikingly clear: Higher levels of spirituality can lead to better health.
Numerous studies have found that more spiritual individuals feel a variety of health outcomes, including better health, lower levels of mental illness, reduced stress and lowered specific rates of certain illnesses, like hypertension. A 2010 scientific review on the subject found that being spiritual can lead to better health and that spiritual practices should be incorporated into care plans for older adults in order to maximize physical and mental health.
This finding has been replicated in other reviews, which noted that, despite the challenges of defining spirituality, it was still generally associated with good health.
Specific studies have been even more clear about the connection between better health and being spiritual in older adults. For example, a study between Columbia University and New York State Psychiatric Institute noted that more spiritual individuals tended to have thicker cerebral cortexes, a positive sign for overall cognitive function. Another study in the journal Cancer found that, among people with cancer, more spiritual individuals had better levels of physical health.
There is also a very firm connection between higher levels of spirituality and better mental health, with people who are more religious experiencing lower levels of suicide, drug use and alcohol abuse.
Explaining the Connection
There are many potential reasons that spiritual beliefs help to create positive health outcomes, particularly in older individuals.
For one thing, being spiritual and praying can help people better deal with stress, particularly as they age. Being spiritual and praying have been found to give people an outlet and a sense of control, thus helping to create a buffer-like impact around stress. Stress can, quite literally, be a killer, particularly in older individuals.
Spirituality can also lead to a sense of community. Spiritual people tend to find each other, be it in person or over the internet, creating a sense of community and allowing vital connections to occur. This is important particularly among older adults, who may find their traditional social circles changing as people move or become ill. This shared community can help people stay more physically fit and mentally sharp, thus increasing health outcomes.
Additionally, higher levels of spirituality can simply lead to a better sense of mind over matter. Studies have found that people who are more spiritual have a greater sense of well-being than those who are not. This, in turn, can lead to better health outcomes.