Are Spiritual Communities Healthier?
by Dr Georgianna Donadio
Life happens – especially as we age. Generally our lives and our health change. The usual causes include having children, divorce, the loss of a spouse or partner, financial circumstances or any of many possible other events. This often can cause sadness, loneliness, depression and decreased immune function. Our immune system is an essential key to our longevity and as we age it becomes more important to preserve its function and integrity. This is where self-care information and application comes in!
A study out of Duke University Medical Center found that older people who attended religious services were about half as likely as those who do not attend services to have elevated levels of an immune protein, interleukin-6 (IL-6), which serves as a indicator of how well the immune system is functioning. (1)
IL-6 indicates the presence of inflammation in the body. Inflammation has been implicated in most major chronic disease states, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. (2) This decreased level of IL-6 translates into a healthier immune system.
The Duke researchers, Dr. Harold Koenig and Dr. Harvey Cohen, studied 1,718 older adults in North Carolina, factoring in health conditions experienced by the study subjects. These included depression, chronic illness, and negative life events—all of which the researchers identified as likely to affect immune status. Even with these conditions, the improvement to the immune system in those who attended weekly services was evidenced.
These findings identified and suggest that religion or participation in a spiritual life community may affect immune function through better coping skills, psychosocial factors, and the mechanisms by which organized religion promotes positive thoughts and behaviors. And, there may be other factors at play. Feelings of belonging to a community, shared values, as well as the togetherness of a shared meaningful activity may be at the cause and effect of these findings.
Dr. Koenig, the lead author of the study states, “Perhaps religious participation enhances immune functioning by yet unknown mechanisms, such as through feelings of belonging, togetherness, even perhaps the experience of worship and adoration.” “Such positive feelings may counteract stress and convey health effects that go far beyond simply the prevention of depression or other negative emotions.”
This study also raises the inquiry that there may be a factor in participating in such a weekly ritual that derails the experience of loneliness, experienced by older Americans to a larger extend than younger populations.