Meditation and prayer have a positive impact on the brain and the body. This growing area of research now has a name. It is called neurotheology.
One of the leaders in the development of this field is Dr. Andrew Newberg. Dr. Newberg is the director of research and a professor at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine of Thomas Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
What Is Neurotheology?
In the words of Dr. Newberg: “[I]n the study of neurotheology, we are trying to understand the relationship among the different areas and functions of the brain and how they help us or restrict us in terms of engaging the spiritual side of ourselves.”
Dr. Newburg stresses that both the neuro side and the theology side of this emerging body of research has to be considered broadly. For example: the neuro side goes beyond neuroscience to include psychology, anthropology, and medicine.
The theology side is not limited in the strict sense to an understanding of points of doctrine in a religious tradition. The theology considered in this research looks more widely at spirituality including rituals, beliefs, and practices like meditation or yoga.
Taking a wider view gives clinicians insight into what helps people engage their spiritual side, how to support it and what benefits flow from it.
Impact of Spirituality on Physical Health
Meditation and prayer can have a positive impact on blood pressure. Research has shown that individuals who were involved in religious activities had significantly lower blood pressure than people who were not religiously active. This held true even for people who had higher body mass index scores.
This same research also found that individuals who were involved in religious activity had lower levels of cortisol in their blood. Cortisol is an indicator of stress, so lower levels of cortisol mean lower stress.
We know that high blood pressure and high stress levels have a negative effect on heart health. But that negative effect also impacts the brain.
Impact of Spirituality on Mental Health
Meditation and prayer have been shown to thicken the frontal cortex of the brain. The frontal cortex is associated with the executive functions of the brain, such as analyzing information and making decisions. It also plays a role in voluntary movement like walking. The stronger it is, the healthier our brain will be.
Research has also shown the positive effect of prayer on memory loss. In a research study completed by Dr. Newberg, participants found their memory improved by 10 -15% over an eight week period. The individuals who participated in the study had already experienced memory loss. Meditation allowed them to recover ground.
Prayer has a significant impact on reducing depression and anxiety. A study following up one month and one year later after a series of six prayer sessions, showed a continuing positive influence.
The conclusion is straightforward. Prayer can be a positive factor — but what does this mean for individuals with dementia?
Meditation, Prayer, and Dementia
Meditation and prayer can help an individual with dementia in several ways:
When prayer is a meaningful part of an individuals’ life, continuing it is important. There is a lot of anxiety associated with cognitive impairments. Prayer can help reduce this anxiety.
An individual’s prayer life is a very personal part of their existence. With dementia, they may feel cut-off from that important part of who they are or afraid that they will lose their ability to pray.
Sister Laura, a sister who participated in the Nun Study, was misdiagnosed prior to the study as having Alzheimer’s disease. For four years, she lived with that haunting diagnosis until it was revised. She confessed:
“Do you know what my worst fear was? That I was going to forget Jesus. I finally realized that I may not remember Him, but He will remember me.” [Aging With Grace, David Snowdon, PhD. p. 120]
Praying with the individual who has dementia can be particularly helpful. Gentle guidance by leading prayers like the rosary or other familiar prayers are a way to offer support.
A church, synagogue or mosque offers a sense of community. Individuals who attend religious services regularly are happier and live longer. For an individual with dementia, their religious community offers an important sense of belonging and acceptance.
If your mom or dad was active in their religious community prior to a dementia diagnosis, continuing to support them after is important. Making sure they can get to church safely and easily will help them maintain a connection to their community.
Religious experiences are very personal. Sharing your prayer life with your mom or dad can build deep connections between the two of you. The emotional connection and support you receive from these interactions will remain meaningful for the rest of your life.
Now and Going Forward
Continuing to support your mom or dad in their spiritual life is important for their well-being. Their spiritual life will impact them both physically and mentally. As shown by the research, a strong prayer life helps lower blood pressure and stress hormones. A prayer life also reduces levels of depression and anxiety. Supporting your mom or dad in this area of their life can also bring you unlooked for rewards. You may find that it also helps you grow in your own spiritual journey.
So, don’t neglect this important part of their life and yours.