Sunday, November 1, 2015

Religion and Spirituality Influences Geriatric Medicine

Photo by Phil Warren.
I was interested to read a scholarly article on the influence of religion and spirituality on aging.

The academic journal Gerontologist published this an article in 2013 by a team of researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University.

These researchers reviewed several articles that explained the implications to a broad range of professions and academic disciplines: geriatric medicine, geriatric psychiatry, psychology in gerontology, sociology, theology and religious community practices,

Their entire article interests me, but it's too much to discuss in one post.

Consequently, I chose the most practical findings, the benefits of religion and spirituality to physical health or the section on geriatric medicine. 

The researchers looked at the effects of religion and spirituality on 1) mental health 2) health behaviors and lifestyle choices, and 3) attitudes towards illness.

They looked at research that measured concrete changes to quality of life, physical health, mental health and morbidity (or timing of death).  This is called quantitative research when data and statistics are used as opposed to using theoretical frameworks or qualitative methods.

Here is a summary of their major findings in this one section of their article:

First. The majority of research shows that religion and spirituality improve mental health by diminishing negative emotions. 

The positive use of religion and spirituality provides "meaning in life, purpose and direction that promote hope and optimism, and encourage forgiveness, gratitude, prosocial attitudes and altruism" (p. 899).

The negative uses of religion and spirituality decrease are those that "promote prejudice, discrimination, judgment or control of others, social isolation, or views of the Divine as punishing, merciless, and/or distant" (p. 899).

Second, religion and spirituality influence health behaviors and lifestyle choices. 

Many religions and spiritual practices prevent or moderate risky health behaviors such as "cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol use, drug abuse, unhealthy eating, inactivity, and sexual promiscuity" (p. 899).

Third, religion and spirituality provide a stance towards illness, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. 

Positive stances include the use of "praying or reading religious scripture that give illness meaning and participating in a faith community" since these "give the sick a sense of control, hope, and may reduce social isolation" (p. 899).

Negative stances that correlate with negative mental and health incomes include "beliefs that illness is a punishment from an unloving, vengeful deity; that one's faith community has abandoned the person; or that the sole purpose of prayer is to cure the illness" when prayer alone fails to accomplish a cure (p. 899).


For decades, I have been a member of the academic community and a member of a faith-based community. At times they reject each other's means of evidence, so it's good to see a little bit of cooperation here in this article.  Researchers are recognizing some of the benefits of faith-based living.

But I still see the benefits of a little skepticism.

As I grow older, I find myself being more discerning in how I apply my own religious upbringing to my life. I am much more confident about excluding elements that I find harmful.  I have let go of some practices and beliefs that promote anger, fear, depression, anxiety, and self-loathing.

Ultimately, God is love--which includes adopting peaceful practices towards myself as well as towards others.

All my best as we journey together to achieve greater love, peace and happiness. Let me close with one of my favorite quotes from Ram Dass: "We're all just walking each other home." Thanks for walking along with me.


Books on Aging and Spiritual Growth
Quantifying Wisdom
Gender Differences in Midlife / Late Life Spirituality


  1. Hi Karen, this area of research fascinates me. Like you, I have sifted through the religious principles of my childhood, and separated myself from those teachings that produce pain and separation. From my own limited perspective, I have seen how God's love and the community of believers has helped friends and relatives cope with illness and, ultimately, death. It is very exciting to see academia and theology beginning to join forces. Who knows what might be uncovered in the future.

    1. Thanks for your observations, Pam. Facing illness and death are hard things, and it seems that religion and spirituality help people address these hard things.

  2. I think you're at a higher level than most of us (certainly me). I don't belong to a church -- and will probably never join one since I don't believe in its central tenets. Yet I sometimes go to B's church, an old-line Presbyterian church, and I am welcome there and I've found a few good friends, and I know they do a lot of good work, from sponsoring a pre-school to doing midnight runs to feed in hungry, to walking to help the homeless, a walk I took part in last week with well over a hundred people from three cooperating churches.

    1. Tom. It's great to read how amicable you and B are about church attendance: you are being supportive of her faith, and her church is being warm to you. Those sound like some very good service-based activities. Kudos to the Presbyterians for all those good works.

  3. I love the way you summed this up. I am finding my own spiritual beliefs a help when I fear illness and death. So it holds true for me.

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I enjoy your posts about spirituality. It's a personal journey for each individual, but I often draw strength and insight when people share their perspective.

  4. If your religion or spirituality comforts you or gives you and your loved ones comfort in times of need, crisis or in everyday living I think it is an obvious advantage to a happy life.

  5. I see my aged mother getting comfort from re-embracing her religion. I'm so happy she has that. Thank you for sharing.


  6. "Ultimately, God is love" - that's a sentiment I can get behind regardless of the religion.

  7. I think faith and spirituality are always helpful to the individual who believes - at any age. When organized religion is intolerant of anyone who doesn't feel the same way they do, that's a problem.

  8. I think faith and spirituality are always helpful to the individual who believes - at any age. When organized religion is intolerant of anyone who doesn't feel the same way they do, that's a problem.

  9. I think we all need to find our spiritual truths. Thanks for sharing yours.