Religion and Spirituality

Can faith actually affect the length and healthiness of one's life? Some studies show that the longest-lived do tend to make religion and spirituality an essential part of their lives. Other studies find no difference between those who have closely held religious beliefs and those who do not (Purdy, 1995; Vaillant, 2002). Multiple studies indicate that regular church attendance is associated with longevity (Pargament, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2001). However, in a two-year longitudinal study at Duke University Medical Center and the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center, medically ill elderly patients who indicated that they were involved in a personal religious struggle regarding their illness were more likely to die within a two-year period than those who did not (Pargament, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2001). In this study the specific forms of religious struggle that were more predictive of mortality included a feeling of alienation from God and the belief that the devil was responsible for their illness. These particular forms of religious struggle were associated with a 19% to 28% increase in the risk of dying within the two-year follow-up period (Pargament, Koenig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2001).

Strong Faith and Optimism

When spirituality does make for better health, it may be because those who have a strong faith are more optimistic. Those who attend religious services and engage in private prayer or meditation tend to be both more optimistic and have better health (Krause, 2002; Ai, Peterson, Bolling, & Koenig, 2002).

Social Benefits of Religion

Elders who participate in organized religion may also have more opportunities to make and be with friends, which we have learned is important to healthy aging. Some elders believe that the emotional support that they find in their religious organization is responsible for a closer relationship with God, which in turn leads to greater optimism (Krause, 2002). Health promotion programs conducted in churches and targeting African American middle-aged and older women have been very effective (Yanek, Becker, Moy, Gittelsohn, & Koffman, 2001).