WEDNESDAY, April 13, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- A rewarding spiritual life may help slow the devastation of Alzheimer's disease.
"The data suggest there may be an association, meaning people with higher levels of spirituality and religiosity have a slower progression of Alzheimer's disease," said Dr. Yakir Kaufman, director of neurology services at Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem.
Kaufman, who conducted the research while a fellow at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, was to present the findings April 13 at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Neurology, in Miami Beach.
Kaufman and his co-authors, however, stressed the need for caution when interpreting the results.
"This is the first study to actually attempt to look into a relationship between spirituality and religiosity and Alzheimer's disease," Kaufman said. "We did not specifically look into the mechanisms, and we certainly need to replicate these results and do a larger study."
Vincent Corso, a former priest who is now manager of spiritual care and bereavement services for Visiting Nurse Service of New York Hospice Care in New York City, said he was not surprised by the findings, however preliminary.
"People who are connected with a spiritual presence in their life, whether it takes the shape of a family member, close friend, support network, meditation or yoga, have a sense of peace and probably, by extrapolation, longevity," he said. "What's important to people is how much they're able to connect with the people around them. If that creates a feeling of well-being, then that aids in the healing process."
Other research not related to Alzheimer's disease has started to show a relationship between spirituality and better health outcomes.
"There's a growing body of data showing the positive effects of higher levels of spirituality/religiosity on health outcomes, especially in other disease states," Kaufman said. That data includes studies on other neurological conditions.
For this study, the researchers assessed 68 people who met the criteria for probable Alzheimer's disease. Participants were asked to complete a structured questionnaire which included questions such as how spiritual the participant viewed themselves, how often they attended religious services and how often they engaged in private religious activity such as prayer, meditation or Bible study. There were also several true or false items, such as, "In my life, I experience the presence of the divine" and "My religious beliefs lie behind my whole approach to life."
Participants who had high levels of spirituality or of religiosity seemed to have a slower progression of cognitive decline.
The authors were reluctant to posit any reason for this relationship. "We can't do speculations based on our study but, in other disease states, there are several factors that may be causing this effect," Kaufman said. "Some could be related to well-being. Some have been related to stress."
Instead of dwelling on possible explanations, Kaufman said he was considering doing another, larger study to try to replicate the results and look into the possible mechanisms.
"The findings of this study need to be replicated before one can start drawing conclusions," said senior study author Dr. Morris Freedman, head of neurology and director of the behavior neurology program at Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care. "This is one study. It needs to be repeated."
Visit the Alzheimer's Association for more on various aspects of this disease.