By Kathy Gaillard
“The fear of the LORD prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be shortened.” Proverbs 10:27,NAS Bible, Proverbs 10:27 There are many passages in the Bible affirming the correlation between faith and longevity. Interestingly enough, scientific research also substantiates that faith—or spirituality— plays a role in one’s longevity.
Several studies have revealed a correlation between faith and longevity, called the faith factor, which simply stated means that religiously active people tend to live longer than those who are not religiously active.
In the twenty-first century alone, some 1,800 studies explored connections between spirituality, health, and healing (Koenig et al., 2011).
According to a study by the University of Maryland Medical Center, spiritual practices tend to improve coping skills and social support, foster feelings of optimism and hope, promote healthy behavior, reduce feelings of depression and anxiety, and encourage a sense of relaxation.
In a study of people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), those who had faith in God, compassion toward others, a sense of inner peace, and were religious had a better chance of surviving for a longer time than those who did not live with belief systems.
Moreover, qualities like faith, hope, forgiveness, and access to a social support and prayer appear to have noticeable effects on health and healing.
Faith, a person’s most deeply held beliefs, may increase the body’s resistance to stress.
In a 1988 clinical study of women undergoing breast biopsies, the women with the lowest stress hormone levels were those who used their faith and prayer to cope with stress.
Without hope, or a positive attitude that a person assumes in the face of difficulty, many people become depressed and prone to illness.
In a 35-year clinical study of Harvard graduates, researchers found that graduates who express hope and optimism live longer and have fewer illnesses in their lifetime.
Forgiveness plays a role in longevity as well. Forgiveness is encouraged by many religions. It is a release of hostility and resentment from past hurts.
In 1997, a Stanford University study found that 1,400 adults who were willing to forgive themselves and others, and who believed that they were forgiven by God, had beneficial health effects.
In addition, some researchers suggest that emotions like anger and resentment cause stress hormones to accumulate in the blood, and that forgiveness reduces this build up.
Gallup polls have shown that three-fourths of Americans past age 65 consider religion to be very important. A 1997 study found that people tend to pray more as they age; nearly 75 percent of the study’s oldest respondents prayed at least once a day.
Throughout their senior years, adults have the capacity to increase their growth in the area of spirituality. The body and mind may weaken, but the spirit is still capable of growth, renewal, or even new birth.
Moreover, new believers can also increase their spiritual maturity. The spiritually mature person can keep growing in wisdom, love, joy, and other spiritual gifts.
In spite of body and appearance changes, losses, and chronic health conditions, elderly people can continue to cultivate their relationship with God and, in doing so, prolong life.
Sometimes elderly people face obstacles the prohibit them engaging with their spiritual support systems. Some older adults become too feeble to attend church or to participate in religious activities with other believers.
As their friends die or move away, they may lose their connections to the community of faith. Others feel alienated in churches that focus their energy on attracting younger audiences.
Failing eyesight may also make it difficult to read the Bible, and diminished hearing can make it difficult to hear sermons.
In addition, seniors may be affected by negative stereotypes and myths that depict older adults as unteachable, useless, unproductive or dependent on others.
Decreasing mental capacities also can make church an overwhelming or negative experience for seniors. Research shows that people with dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease) experience too much stimulation from attending religious services.
Some seniors in this situation find it less stressful to watch religious television or listen to radio programs rather than attend church.
Like all individuals who are spiritual, seniors need the fellowship and encouragement of other believers. Some studies point to the fact that the social support involved in religions explains the ‘faith factor.’ In Judaic, Christian, and Islamic religions, faith is a shared experience. Belonging to one of these faith communities usually means seniors have access to support systems.
Spiritually active people are there for one another when misfortune strikes. In addition, religion encourages marriage, which is another predictor of health and longevity.
However, even after controlling for social support, gender, unhealthy behaviors, and preexisting health problems, mortality studies still find that people that are engaged religiously tend to live longer (Chida et al., 2009).
The population of the United States is growing older, which should be a wake-up call to religious organizations. With the older adult population expected to continue to be the fastest-growing population segment, while the birth rate continues to fall, communities need to pay more attention to this population.
However, most American churches are focusing on youth programs and reaching out to the next generation, while neglecting the fastest-growing sector of society. So, while there is a need for youth ministries, the church community must become equally passionate about integrating older people into the church and reaching out to those who are too frail to attend.
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