The number of Australians suffering dementia is currently 280,000, a number expected to increase more than four-fold in the next 40 years, sparking calls for the federal government to devote more funds to addressing the looming aged care issue. This story continues to be a major news item in the media across Australia.
Last week another article in the online Sunshine Coast Daily “Keep your grey matter healthy” caught my attention. Professor Perry Bartlett, Institute Director at the Queensland Brain Institute, is reported as stating that seniors might be able to not only slow the effects of cognitive decline, but actually reverse it. While reporting on new clinical studies he said that, “It is NOT inevitable that your brain begins that gradual decline. As opposed to what we thought ten years ago, the brain actually continues to make new brain cells throughout life.”
Bartlett’s espousing of the benefits of brain exercises makes sense, and goes hand in hand with another field of clinical research that is adding to our change of thought about ageing. And that is the research into the effects of spirituality on health.
Spiritual behaviours include gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, mindfulness, hope and prayer. Spirituality, classified as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), is fast becoming the new frontier in healthcare. Medical and nursing training institutions are including spirituality in their courses. GPs are now encouraged to talk about spiritual things with their patients. The World Christian Doctors’ Network website includes graphic evidence of the physiological effects of prayer.
South-East Queensland has a large proportion of wonderful older people, “seniors” as they’re often called. I love seeing seniors walking on the beach, fishing off the piers, playing golf and generally enjoying life in their later years. These are the true “senior moments”. So it bothers me deeply when I read about dementia threatening to demote seniors from their well-earned place and status to a lower level where their “senior-hood” can become a curse rather than a blessing. However, research is showing that there is an alternative to the unjust sentence this disease imposes on our seniors and their families.
Last year I referred to an ABC TV show called The Young Ones, which featured an experiment in the UK with seniors that showed how we think about ourselves shapes how we feel. Thought provoking indeed!
Australian clinicians have conducted research into dementia, and it seems that there is a link with depression, hopelessness and frailty in older people. A recent research paper published in The Medical Journal of Australia, Spiritual care and ageing in a secular society (MacKinlay and Trevitt, 2007), suggests that “spiritual care should not be seen as an “optional extra” for older people … one important view of ageing is of a spiritual journey” that includes finding a deep life meaning, hope and connectedness. The authors cite their finding as an alternative view of ‘successful ageing’.
These examples reveal an opening in public thought to the possibilities of benefitting from an understanding of the mind/body connection in relation to ageing, as well as accepting that spirituality is essential to health in advancing years. The newest frontier in medicine, evidence-based research into the effects of spirituality on health, is demonstrating more graphically than ever before how important thought is to experience, as well as the life-changing transformation that can occur when we adopt a spiritual perspective.