Simply going to church may be putting off your chance of developing Alzheimer’s. We already know that research shows that ‘people with a faith, who regularly attend a place of worship’ tend to live longer. Commenting on the research, a professor commented that the evidence was so clear that although he wasn’t a believer, he thought he might go for his health’s sake!

Now there’s confirmation of old research showing that feelings of loneliness can be a risk factor for dementia – which makes me ask, can being part of a lively church fellowship reduce loneliness? 

Robert S. Wilson, PhD, and his colleagues at the Center for Aging, Rush University, Chicago, analyzed the association between loneliness and Alzheimer’s disease in 823 older adults over a four-year period. Loneliness was measured on a scale of one to five, with higher scores indicating more loneliness.

At the first examination, participants’ average loneliness score was 2.3. During the study period, 76 individuals developed dementia that met criteria for Alzheimer’s disease. Risk for developing Alzheimer’s disease increased approximately 51 percent for each point on the loneliness score, so that a person with a high loneliness score (3.2) had about 2.1 times greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease than a person with a low score (1.4). The findings did not change significantly when the researchers factored in markers of social isolations, such as a small network and infrequent social activities.

“Humans are very social creatures,’ said Dr Wilson, ‘We need healthy interactions with others to maintain our health. The results of our study suggest that people who are persistently lonely may be more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of age-related neuropathology.”

He encourages more study to look at how negative emotions cause changes in the brain, something that Professor Kitwood, of Bradford University advocated years ago. In his book, ‘Dementia Reconsidered’ (Open University Press) Professor Kitwood suggested that a ‘malign social pathology’ could very likely create a harmful biochemical environment in the brain that is damaging to neurones.

Isn’t it fascinating to see how science and research echo what was written in the Scriptures thousands of years ago? From cover to cover there are instructions about caring for one another in community, in neighbourhoods, in families, in the national as a whole – and most importantly, in church. ‘Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together,’ as the Old King James Version puts it (Hebrews 10:25).

Christians worshipping at the Big Church Day Out earlier this year
Christians worshipping at the Big Church Day Out earlier this year

I was reminded of Ecclesiastes 4:12 in church this morning. William is a young man born with serious cerebral defects, and has spent all his life in a wheelchair.

He has a sparky, independent spirit and manages to get about well on his own. He comes to church with an older friend. Every time there is prayer for healing, William is there. He isn’t put off by the fact that he’s still in his wheelchair. He believes God can do it and will do it, one day.

This morning there was a particularly fiery sermon from a silver haired, fiery old Welsh preacher . One of the key points was how much do we really believe what God says. Do we believe He will answer prayer, for example? He reminded us of how, after being released from prison by an angel (woken out of sleep, chains struck off, doors opening on their own) Peter knocked on the door of the house where the church was praying for his release. The girl who answered the knock, Rhoda, couldn’t believe her eyes, and the people praying didn’t inside didn’t either! (Acts 12:13). These were seasoned Christians, too.

There are times, said the Pastor, when we need to recognise our unbelief and ask the Lord for more of His Spirit, for more of Him. Those who wanted more of Him were invited to stand in prayer.

William struggled to stand in his wheelchair and in a flash the older man was by his side lifting him to his feet and holding him up. They stayed like that for quite a few minutes. Ecclesiastes 4:12 in action.
After the service there’s the usual milling around ; the coffee shop, the book shop, and people just pausing to chat.

I wish I could say that being part of an active, caring church meant you would never develop dementia. But in diminishing the risk of loneliness, it could ameliorate an important risk factor.

Louise Morse

Louise Morse MA (CBT) is media and external relations manager for the Pilgrims’ Friend Society. She is a writer and speaker, and author of books on issues of old age, including dementia, published by Lion Monarch and SPCK. She is a cognitive behavioural therapist, and her Masters’ dissertation examined the effects of caring for a loved one with dementia on close relatives.

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