Karen Cicero

The next time you're passing a church, a mosque or a synagogue, you might want to pop in for a few moments.

A new American-Israeli study has found that praying regularly can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease by 50 percent.

The study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C., found that women, who have a significantly larger chance of developing forms of dementia - of which Alzheimer's is one form -- could stave off the disease through prayer. The findings confirm earlier studies that indicated religion can play a positive role.

"We found that people with higher levels of spiritual well-being had a significantly slower progression of Alzheimer's disease," Yakir Kafman, the head of the neuropsychiatric department at Herzog hospital in Jerusalem, told The Media Line.

The Israeli organization Melabev has ten centers serving about 600 Alzheimer's patients for whom prayer is part of the daily routine. "If prayer is done in a center or a religious facility, it is communal and there is a social aspect," Susan Sachs, the director of public relations and development at Melabev told The Media Line. "It gives hope and perspective, and for many people it helps retain their dignity. They're doing something that they did all their lives."

Melabev provides an alternative to institutionalizing Alzheimer's patients by providing a full day of activities. Sachs estimates there are 100,000 people suffering from the disease in Israel. The centers provide them with laminated cards with the most popular prayers printed in large type, although many of the patients rely on memory, which also helps strengthen their cognitive function. While prayer has some cognitive elements, it strengthens emotional functioning even more.

As the patients' cognitive function declines, his or her emotional function may be strengthened, according to Leah Abramowitz, the head of the Institute for the Study of Aging at Melabev. She told The Media Line that, "It's like a baby who can feel his mother's emotions and will start crying if she is angry or tense. It's like the person who is fully blind will have more acute hearing."

Prayer, whether public or private, can also lower stress levels - one of the risk factors for Alzheimer's. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. According to medical sources, as people live longer, there is more chance that they will develop dementia. Israel's life expectancy - 80 years for men and 84.2 for women - is the world's fourth-highest, exceeded only by Japan, Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Professor Rivka Inzelberg of Tel Aviv University, who led the research, told a conference recently that the study indicated that 50 percent more women than men suffer memory impairments, and that formal schooling decreases the risk of getting Alzheimer's, which also has a genetic component. Abramowitz agreed that rituals, like prayer, are especially comforting to Alzheimer's patients.

"Prayer is something that went into [the patients'] long term memory many many years ago," she said. "It is a ritual that is very comforting for them."






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