Religious involvement may improve cognitive health

August 15, 2019
Contact: Jared Wadley jwadley@umich.edu

Senior Woman Praying

ANN ARBOR—People over 50 who attend religious services and pray privately may notice better memory performance, a new study from the University of Michigan found.

According to the study’s findings, frequent religious service attendance and private prayer was linked to stronger cognitive health among blacks, Hispanics and whites.

Zarina Kraal.

Zarina Kraal.

Previous research has shown religious involvement benefits physical and mental health of older minority adults.

Zarina Kraal, U-M psychology doctoral candidate and the study’s lead author, tested whether the findings could be extended to cognitive health.

Kraal and colleagues used six years of data from the U-M Health and Retirement Study, which included responses from more than 16,000 people over age 50. They asked about religious attendance and prayer, and then tested people’s memory skills.

Participants—who disclosed their ethnicity, physical health and depressive symptoms—heard 10 words and had to recall them immediately, and then again five minutes later.

Older black and Hispanic adults reported more religious involvement than their white counterparts. The effects of prayer and religious attendance on memory were equivalent between black and white older adults, as well as Hispanic and white older adults, Kraal said.

She also noted that the social aspects of religious service attendance may underlie its positive association with memory in older adults.

Attending religious services may promote social engagement with religious peers, and social engagement has been positively associated with cognitive outcomes

Zarina Kraal

“Attending religious services may promote social engagement with religious peers, and social engagement has been positively associated with cognitive outcomes,” Kraal said.

Separate from social benefits, religious attendance may be linked to better cognitive health through stimulating cognitive activities unique to religious services, such as discussing sermons or applying scriptural study.

Additionally, the potential cognitive demands of prayer may explain its positive association with memory, Kraal said. For instance, memory may be required to recall who to pray for and reasons for prayer. Prayer may be beneficial for memory via its relaxation and stress reduction effects.

The study’s other authors—all from the U-M Department of Psychology—were postdoctoral fellows Neika Sharifian and Ketlyne Sol, graduate student Afsara Zaheed and assistant professor Laura Zahodne.

The findings appear in the journal Research on Aging.

 

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