Friday, March 31, 2006

 

Alzheimer's Study - effect of religiousity on disease progression?

I found this report below from last summer while reading a bit more after the Templeton study announcement on the heart patient study. The reason I'm doing all this reading is twofold. I thought the heart patient study had kind of a dorky design, and I'm thinking about writing a longer piece of work on why scientific fundamentalism (Scientism) is just as bad for society as religious fundamentalism run amok.

Science and Religion are not mutually exclusive spheres. It's time for an integration of the lessons from both and an optimization for the future.

As far as the Alzheimer's study, I would suspect that anyone that has a community that supports them and reinforces a systemic belief system and keeps your mind active might get the same benefits from their community that religious people get from theirs. In other words, if you stimulate the mind in a particular way, then you could get rewards. I don't envision a world where a doctor writes a prescription for Judaism, or tells you to lay off the atheism for a while due to plaque buildup.

Never understimate the real value of having a social support network. Having moved across the country in 1996, and therefore being forced to rebuild mine, I came to wonder if the lack of a social support network can erode you in a physical way.

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Religious practice may slow the insidious progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

By Mike Martin
(June 9, 2005)

Going to church may not only be good for the soul, but good for the mind as well, say Canadian and Israeli researchers who found that religious practice may slow the insidious progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We learned that Alzheimer’s patients with higher levels of spirituality or higher levels of religiosity may have a significantly slower progression of cognitive decline,” said study author Dr. Yakir Kaufman, director of neurology at Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem.

Recent peer-reviewed research indicates that religious involvement lowers mortality and increases quality of life, particularly in patients with neurological disorders, Kaufman and co-author Dr. Morris Freedman explain in a paper.

Kaufman presented “The Effects of Spirituality and Religiosity on the Rate of Cognitive Decline and Quality of Life in Alzheimer’s Disease” at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Neurology in Miami Beach, Fla.

Their study is the first to look at the relationship between religiosity, spirituality and the rate of disease progression in Alzheimer’s disease, said Freedman, who heads the division of neurology at the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto.

“This is amazing research,” said geriatric psychiatrist Dr. Michael Rayel, chief of psychiatry at Dr. G. B. Cross Memorial Hospital in Clarenville, Newfoundland. “This work is consistent with recent studies showing that prayer, spirituality or religiosity is correlated with better mental and physical health.”

Worldwide, Alzheimer’s disease affects approximately 5 percent to 10 percent of adults over age 65 and nearly 50 percent of adults over 85 years of age.

In Freedman’s home country of Canada, 1.3 percent of the population — 420,000 people — has the disease, which manifests as a gradual wasting of brain tissue accompanied by the accumulation of so-called “amyloid plaques” — protein fragments the body normally breaks down and eliminates that block transmission of information across neurons.

In the United States, 4.5 million adults, or about 1.5 percent of the population, have Alzheimer’s, at a cost of some $61 billion annually, according to the Alzheimer’s Association of America.

The new research, which found that “spirituality and private religious practices were significantly associated with progression of cognitive impairment,” may open the door to new psychotherapies designed to stop or reverse this so-far incurable disease.

The researchers devised a study that assessed 68 subjects between ages 49 and 94. Each person met criteria for probable Alzheimer’s disease as determined by the National Institute of Neurological and Communicative Disorders and Stroke/Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Disorders Association.

Published in 1984, the criteria are globally accepted as diagnostic for the disorder.

Two assessment tools — the Duke University Religion Index, or DUREL, and the Fetzer Institute’s Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality — measured each subject’s religious practices, such as church attendance or private prayer.

“The DUREL is a five-item scale designed to assess organizational and private religious and spiritual practices including attendance, private religious activities, and intrinsic religiosity,” said Kaufman.

Kaufman and Freedman used the Folstein Mini Mental State Examination to measure cognitive response and impairment in their subjects.

The brainchild of Tufts University psychiatry professor and cognitive disorders specialist Dr. Marshal Folstein, the Mini Mental State Examination is a short survey that grades a person’s orientation, attention, memory, language and ability to follow simple commands.

Data analysis revealed “higher levels of religiosity and private religious practices were significantly correlated with slower rates of cognitive decline,” Freedman explained.

But whether or not spiritual activity slows Alzheimer’s more effectively than other types of mental activity may be the “$64,000 question,” said University of Pennsylvania radiology professor Dr. Andrew Newberg.

“Is prayer simply a heightened cognitive process or does it have unique benefits all its own?” said Newberg, whose pioneering studies imaged the brain during meditation and prayer. “One of the big questions ultimately becomes whether or not the researchers can differentiate the positive effects of spirituality from other activities.”

Separating the two elements of religious practice — belief and practice — may help explain these benefits.

“In addition to the ‘supernatural’ explanation for better health, the rituals and traditions associated with spirituality, such as socialization, volunteering, scheduled church activities and prayers, contribute to mental and cognitive processes,” said Rayel, who is also a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Scanning a patient’s brain with positron-emission tomography may
represent a next step in the research, Newberg told Science & Theology News. Positron-emission tomography is an accepted diagnostic tool used to improve predictions about future cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients.

If spirituality indeed slows the disease, additional studies could lead to religion-based therapies.

“These findings may warrant an interventional study looking at the possible effect of enhancement of spiritual well-being as a means of slowing cognitive decline,” Rayel said.

Mike Martin is a freelance science-and-technology writer.

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