Religious factors may influence brain shrinkage in old age

July, 2011
  • An intriguing new study suggests life-changing religious experiences may result in greater brain shrinkage in old age.

The brain tends to shrink with age, with different regions being more affected than others. Atrophy of the hippocampus, so vital for memory and learning, is associated with increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, and has also been linked to depression.

In a study involving 268 older adults (58+), the hippocampus of those reporting a life-changing religious experience was found to be shrinking significantly more compared to those not reporting such an experience. Significantly greater hippocampal atrophy was also found among born-again Protestants, Catholics, and those with no religious affiliation, compared with Protestants not identifying as born-again.

The participants are not a general sample — they were originally recruited for the NeuroCognitive Outcomes of Depression in the Elderly. However, some of the participants were from the control group, who had no history of depression. Brain scans were taken at the beginning of the study, and then every two years. The length of time between the baseline scan and the final scan ranged from 2 to 8 years (average was 4).

Questions about religious experiences were asked in an annual survey, so could change over time. Two-thirds of the group was female, and 87% were white. The average age was 68. At baseline, 42% of the group was non-born-again Protestant, 36% born-again Protestant; 8% Catholic; 6% other religion. Only 7% reported themselves as having no religion. By the end of the study, 44% (119 participants) reported themselves born-again, and 13% (36) reported having had life-changing religious experiences.

These associations persisted after depression status, acute stress, and social support were taken into account. Nor did other religious factors (such as prayer, meditation, or Bible study) account for the changes.

It is still possible that long-term stress might play a part in this association — the study measured acute rather than cumulative stress. The researchers suggest that life-changing religious experiences can be stressful, if they don’t fit in with your existing beliefs or those of your family and friends, or if they lead to new social systems that add to your stress.

Of course, the present results can be interpreted in several ways — is it the life-changing religious experience itself that is the crucial factor? Or the factors leading up to that experience? Or the consequences of that experience? Still, it’s certainly an intriguing finding, and it will be interesting to see more research expanding and confirming (or not!) this result.

More generally, the findings may help clarify the conflicting research about the effects of religion on well-being, by pointing to the fact that religion can’t be considered a single factor, but one subject to different variables, some of which may be positive and others not.

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