Senior health: why church is so good

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Tending to my mother following major surgery proved to be eye-opening for me. I found great reward and fulfilment in helping her with her physical therapy and improving her fitness. But I also found that when she was able to return to church regularly, her physical and mental health were greatly enhanced. As a personal trainer who focuses on senior fitness, I have witnessed firsthand the heightened mood and health among my senior clients who attend church regularly.

I decided to delve a little deeper.

Church attendance in Australia has been in decline for many years. However, seniors aged 65 and over remain the group most likely to participate in weekly religious services. There are a range of health benefits that religious participation can offer older members.

Lower blood pressure

Attending church may lower blood pressure, decreasing the risk of heart disease and stroke. A study of churchgoing adults in Norway showed that people who went to church at least three times a month had blood pressure one to three points lower than those who didn’t go to church at all. Even occasional church participation offers benefits: people who went to church between one and three times a month enjoyed a one-point reduction in blood pressure, while those who attended once a month saw about a half-point drop.

Stronger immune systems

People who are involved in church also tend to have healthier immune systems. Adults who attended church at least once a week were likely to have lower levels of interleukin-6, a protein associated with age-related diseases that include heart disease, autoimmune disorders and some cancers. Heightened interleukin-6 levels are also associated with a lower ability to manage the tasks of everyday life, like walking, bathing and cooking.

Improved cancer outcomes

Women who are active in a religious community are less likely to die of breast cancer. While religious women get breast cancer at the same rate as other women, they are more likely to detect the cancer early, leading to improved survival rates. In fact, women who attended church weekly were twice as likely to report having regular mammograms in one study. And considering that breast cancer is primarily a disease of ageing, with one in 28 women aged over 60 being diagnosed, early detection is a major health concern for senior women.

Better mental health

Another recent study found that seniors are happier than any other generation—this can have a huge impact on their mental and physical health. Attending church can provide some of that increased happiness through social outlets, a sense of community and spiritual comfort. Thanks to these mood-boosting benefits, seniors are less likely to encounter depression and anxiety. [pullquote]

Longer lives

Women who went to church more than weekly were 33 per cent less likely to die during the span of a 20-year study than women who didn’t take part in church services. Women who attended once a week experienced 26 per cent lower mortality and infrequent church attendees still enjoyed a 13 per cent reduction. While the study only looked at mortality rates in women, it’s reasonable to assume that the life-lengthening benefits of religious participation would extend to men, too.

And it’s not just about being religious—the benefits were seen in people who got out of the house and went to a place of worship, not those who studied in solitude.

Researchers can’t pinpoint why church is so good for senior health. Maybe it’s the positive behaviours promoted by religious communities, the optimistic outlook and hope for the future found in Scripture, or the deep social connections created between church members. Maybe it’s all of this working together to keep seniors living better for longer.

No matter the reason, it’s clear that church attendance offers incredible benefits for the body and soul alike.

Jason Lewis is a personal trainer who focuses on senior fitness and health.

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