Senior medicine? Try church.

March 16, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Seniors in a program at Asociación San Lucas Moyobamba work on stretching their muscles to encourage flexibility. (File photo)

(Editor's note: Jason Lewis is a personal trainer with a special interest in senior health. He works to create programs are the special health needs of those over the age of 65.)

Senior medicine? Try church.

By Jason Lewis

The senior years are one of life’s most trying times. By the time they reach their twilight years, the elderly have seen friends and family pass away, adult children move away, and their own health deteriorate. Keeping seniors physically and mentally healthy despite life’s stresses can be challenging, but there’s help to be found in an unlikely place: at church.

What are the health benefits of church attendance?

There’s a large body of evidence to support the idea that church attendance improves senior health:

  • Church attendance is associated with improved cardiovascular health and reduced inflammation, according to research from Vanderbilt University.
  • People who attend church regularly are less likely to die from suicide or cancer.
  • People who attend church are less likely to have depression or anxiety, or experience depressive symptoms.
  • Regular church attendance is linked to longer lives, as the Washington Post reports.

How does church improve health among seniors?

The benefits that church attendance offers seniors isn’t due to the religious teachings themselves, although faith can certainly offer comfort and optimism to people facing their own mortality. Rather, it’s primarily the community found at church that improves seniors’ lives and health.

As the New York Times points out, social isolation poses a major health threat. It weakens the immune system, accelerates cognitive decline, promotes depression and anxiety, and leads to poorer health outcomes when people fall ill or get injured. And it’s adults over the age of 65 who are most likely to be chronically lonely: One-third of Americans over the age of 65 live alone, along with half of people over 85. Since churches can be found in communities large and small, they’re a low-barrier way for seniors to stay socially engaged even as mobility and independence wanes.

In addition to fighting social isolation, church attendance promotes healthy behaviors. People who attend church are less likely to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or engage in risky sexual behaviors. They’re more likely to use preventive health services and follow prescribed treatment regimens, and some churches even offer on-site medical screenings and parish nurse programs, reducing health care barriers for elderly congregation members. Church programming may include fitness classes and activity groups designed for aging adults, or adult day services that provide much-needed respite to senior caregivers.

How can the elderly stay active in church?

Seniors don’t have to be religious to reap the benefits of church attendance. Even a person who has never before attended church can benefit from joining a faith community late in life. However, studying religious texts at home isn’t adequate. Since the benefits come from church attendance, rather than religiosity itself, it’s important that seniors make church attendance part of their weekly routine. Thankfully, with the availability of alternative transportation options like public transit and church-sponsored transportation, seniors can stay involved in church even if they can no longer drive themselves.

Church involvement needn’t be limited to sermons. Elderly congregation members can use their church as a springboard to get involved in volunteering or activity groups or to build friendships that extend beyond church walls. Since higher levels of church attendance are associated with increased health benefits, the more ways a senior gets involved, the better.

Staying healthy in old age requires more than taking the right pills and eating a healthy diet. To maintain a healthy body, mind, and spirit despite life’s challenges, seniors must find community among people who lift them up and support them in times of need. And for many people, there’s no better place to find community and comfort than at church.

Next story:

Letting God take the lead