Religion and Spirituality in Older People

Religion and spirituality

Religion and spirituality often play a vital role in people’s lives, and this may be especially true for the elderly. More than 90% of elderly people identify themselves as being religious/spiritual. There are numerous mental and physical benefits to being religious and/or spiritual with but a few caveats.


The Difference Between Spirituality and Religion

Religion and spirituality are not the same things, although they have similarities. Religion is based on a set of standards of beliefs and practices. For example, practitioners of a specific religion may be required to go to church, mosque, or temple on certain days and refrain from eating certain foods at certain times or to prepare foods only in religiously acceptable ways. Religion involves rituals as well as teachings. Spirituality, on the other hand, offers many more options. A spiritual person believes in a higher power in a more general way and may assemble an eclectic mix of beliefs and practices based on enhancing spiritual awareness. Scientists identify religious/spiritual people as engaging in organized religious activity (ORA) or nonorganizational religious activity (NORA), which are religion and spirituality, respectively.


Religion and Spirituality Offer Both Mental and Physical Benefits

There are benefits to religiosity and spirituality. Drs. Kaplan and Berkman, writing for Merck and Co., cite research that shows that religion and spirituality are seen by elderly people as positive forces that help them face life with more resilience and hope; improve social and familial relationships; and cope with life stresses such as financial or health concerns. Another great benefit to older people who belong to a religion or spiritual group is a sense of community. They avoid social isolation; they do volunteer activities that keep them connected with others;  they have people who inquire as to their health and well-being with whom they can exchange ideas and information.


Religious and/or spiritual communities provide support networks that may help with practical needs such as meals and transportation in addition to emotional and mental support. Religious/spiritual practices also carry numerous physical health benefits.


The Merck study summarized other studies about religion, spirituality, and the elderly which have shown that “There is growing evidence that religious or spiritual practices may be associated with better physical health and greater longevity as well as better mental health and greater social support.” Research summarized in Mayo Clinic Proceedings indicated  nearly 350 studies of physical health and a full 850 studies of mental health show better health outcomes for the aged when religion and/or spirituality are at the core of their value systems.


Religious/spiritual people literally live longer, according to the Mayo Clinic report. This has been corrobrated by 18 studies. Less cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and lower blood pressure are found among the religious/spiritual. What is more, religious and/or spiritual people tend to exercise more, eat better, smoke less, use their seat belts, and attend preventive screenings.



Religious/spiritual people literally live longer, according to Mayo Clinic Proceedings.



The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study showing that organized religious activity (ORA) and nonorganized religious activity (NORA) resulted in fewer acute care hospitalization days and fewer hospitalizations in general, especially among women and African Americans. Religious and spiritual tendencies also predicted fewer days spent in long-term care among these groups.


The Downside of Religion and Spiritualty

Religion and spirituality can have their downsides too. A religious group may be judgmental and induce guilt in people unable to live up to high standards. Doctrines may be rigid and not open to question or discussion. As death approaches, an unflattering religious or spiritual assessment of one’s life could be debilitating. Faith healing or other unscientific practices, rather than traditional medicine, may replace adequate medical care. Rejecting others outside of the faith may result in social isolation.


However, for the most part, scientists see enormous psychological and physical benefits when people cultivate their spiritual or religious lives. As a meaning-making practice that helps older people face end of life issues, both physical and psychological, religion and spirituality may be invaluable to long and well-lived lives.




Koenig, H. G., George, L. K., Titus, P., Meador, K. G. ( July 26, 2004). Religion, Spirituality, and Acute Care Hospitalization and Long-Term Care Use by Older Patients.  JAMA Internal Medicine, 164(14). Retrieved from Accessed on September 2, 2016.


Merck and Co.  Religion and Spirituality in Older People. Merck Manual. Retrieved from Accessed on August 29, 2016.


Medscape. Spirituality and Aging. Retrieved from Accessed on August 29, 2016.


Mueller, P. S., Plevak, D. J., Rummans, T. A. (December 2001). Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 76(12): 1225-1235. Retrieved from Accessed on September 2, 2016.