Andrew Parker

Decade-Long Study Reveals the Impact of Religion on Cognitive Health

After a decade, a study into the relationship between religious practices and cognitive decline in older adults has finally reached its conclusion. Previously, people believed that being religious might protect them from cognitive issues later in life. However, the study’s findings were far different from that. 

Understanding Religiosity 

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‘Religiosity’ covers various behaviors, beliefs, and spiritual practices. Of course, measuring how religious someone is is difficult, mainly because religious practices, beliefs/doctrine, and spirituality are so diverse. Additionally, there is no agreed definition of religiosity, which makes measuring it that much harder.

Background to the Study

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Florian Dürlinger, Jonathan Fries, Takuya Yanagida, and Jakob Pietschnig conducted the study called “Religiosity does not prevent cognitive declines: Cross-sectional and longitudinal evidence from the Survey of Health, Aging and Retirement in Europe.” It was first published in Intelligence magazine.

The Study’s Methodology and Participants

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Researchers used data from the Survey of Health, Aging, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE) in their study. This included data from people aged 50 and above. They were from one of 28 European countries or Israel. It surveyed over 30,000 participants and assessed their cognitive ability by measuring their numeracy, verbal fluency, and memory skills alongside questions on religiosity.

Cognitive Abilities and Religiosity

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The study found a small but consistent negative connection between cognitive abilities and religiosity. People who engaged more in religious activities, like praying, often had lower scores in cognitive tasks. The researchers found that this connection existed even when accounting for factors like age and sex. It suggests that being religious does not protect you from cognitive decline.

Stability Over Time

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The researchers analyzed the data over a long period of time. Their results found that this negative correlation between cognitive abilities and religiosity remained stable over time. As such, this suggests that being religious will not help your cognitive abilities even in your later years.

Societal Religiosity

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They also looked at how religiosity in a society can affect cognitive decline. They found that, for the most part, there was a faster cognitive decline in countries that were overall more religious. However, this was not true for all countries, suggesting that religion may not necessarily cause cognitive issues. 

Limitations and Considerations

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However, the researchers did acknowledge that there were limitations in the research. As the participants were all 50 years or older, this would affect the kind of conclusions that researchers could make from the results. Similarly, any positive cognitive effects from being religious may only appear in people after a certain age.

Remarks by the Lead Author

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Florian Dürlinger was the study’s lead author, and he shared his thoughts on the research. He said, “We could not provide robust evidence for a moderation by societal religiosity. This, however, could be due to the low variance of national religiosity estimates for the countries included. 

Durlinger’s Continued Comments

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He continued, “Future research could address the question of potential moderating effects of societal religiosity possibly explaining why effects were found in the United States but not in Western Europe. Although we cannot answer this conclusively with our data, to me personally, it seems that if religiosity has the potential to protect against cognitive declines, it is probably due to its behavioral aspects, like socializing, praying, reading, etc.”

An Active Lifestyle

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Dürlinger also said, “Those effects, which might come out as more beneficial in more religious societies, could be obtained without religion or a belief in God as well: That an active lifestyle is conductive to a healthy cognitive ageing is something we have already known.” He added, “Our main finding is that religiosity does not protect against cognitive declines.”

The Importance of Diet

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Other research has shown following the Mediterranean diet can help reduce the risk of developing dementia. Scientists believe that this diet can help people’s cardiovascular system, which can support brain health. The MIND diet is a combination of the Mediterranean and DASH diets. It specifically tries to fight cognitive decline and has shown promising results.

Physical Activity

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Similarly, regular physical activity can also help. For example, aerobic exercises like speed walking can stimulate brain network connections. This can increase the size of the parts of the brain that are used for memory and learning. This could help to reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease risk. Federal guidelines recommend at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week.

Mental Engagement

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It is also important to do mentally stimulating activities, such as learning a new language. Research shows that this can create a “cognitive reserve.” This reserve helps the brain become more adaptable. Scientists believe this could help avoid any age-related changes and health conditions affecting the brain​​.

Social Connectivity

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Another important activity is social activity. This is particularly challenging for older people, so some people have suggested developing community programs to help improve their well-being and cognitive function. Taking part in meaningful activities with others has been proven to improve life expectancy and mood. This could also help with cognitive health. 

Stress Management

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Additionally, some factors are known to directly cause cognitive issues. Chronic stress, for example, can harm people’s memory and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and related dementia diseases. Scientists believe that regular exercise and relaxation techniques can help manage stress and promote cognitive health​​.

Risk Factor Management

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Likewise, several risk factors increase the chances of someone suffering from cognitive decline. For example, high blood pressure, depression, brain injuries, poor diet, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption can all make this problem worse. Identifying and reducing these risk factors can massively help people avoid the risk of cognitive decline​​.

World Health Organization (WHO) Guidelines

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In 2019, the World Health Organization published a report with “evidence-based recommendations on lifestyle behaviors and interventions to delay or prevent cognitive decline and dementia.” These include some of the recommendations already mentioned. WHO said this report is “an important tool for health care providers as well as governments, policy-makers, and other stakeholders to strengthen their response to the dementia challenge.”

Preventive Strategies on a Global Scale

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According to WHO, “the number of people with dementia is set to triple by 2050.” Approximately 50 million people currently have dementia across the world, with the CDC claiming that around 5.8 million Americans have some sort of dementia-related disease. Clearly, this is an important issue, and it will continue to be one for the foreseeable future.

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