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Religious music brings benefit to seniors' mental health, says a new study

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Can religious music be a branch on the tree of holistic health? Religious music brings benefit to seniors' mental health, says a new study, “Listening to Religious Music and Mental Health in Later Life.” The article recently published online in The Gerontologist reports that among older Christians, listening to religious music is associated with a decrease in anxiety about death and increases in life satisfaction, self-esteem, and sense of control over their lives. In particular, listening to gospel music is associated with a decrease in anxiety about death and an increase in sense of control.

Many people wonder why religious music is so much more comforting to older adults than to the youngest members of society. Is it about running out of time as one ages, or more about experiencing the meditative and comforting effects of religious music? In a choice of music for comfort, should the music sound be emphasized or the religious nature of the words in the music, or the instrumentation that evokes comfort or emotion of feeling safer while the music plays? Or do the words of the song give comfort?

These associations are similar for blacks and whites, women and men, and individuals of both low- and high-socioeconomic status. The article, titled was authored by Matt Bradshaw, PhD, of Baylor University; Christopher G. Ellison, PhD, of the University of Texas-San Antonio; Qijan Fang, MA, of Bowling Green State University; and Collin Mueller, MA, of Duke University.

It would be interesting to have the same type of test done with members of the diverse population across the nation of different religious music such as Tibetan Buddhist chanting listened to by people who are and who aren't Buddhists, to Hindu devotional/religious music, Jewish, Muslim, medieval religious music, Gregorian chants, and any other type of religious music, including indigenous, native American and tribal chanting of religious music.

Is it the rhythm, the slow or fast beats per minute, the choral voices, the harmony of religious chanting, or the melody that gives the most comfort? And would it work the same way with East Asian religious music listened to by those who have no ties to East Asia, such as Chinese or Hindu meditation music?

What are the effects of religious music of other faiths on those form that culture compared to those who are comforted by the melodies or instrumental music who have no ties to that culture? And can ambient music, Early music, music for meditation, or medieval or Baroque music have the same effects on the body and mind as far as comfort and stress reduction that religious music has?

“Religion is an important socioemotional resource that has been linked with desirable mental health outcomes among older U.S. adults,” the authors stated, according to the April 18, 2014 news release, Religious music brings benefit to seniors' mental health. “This study shows that listening to religious music may promote psychological well-being in later life,” the authors explain.

The data for the study come from two waves (taken in 2001 and 2004) of the nationwide Religion, Aging, and Health Survey of older black and white U.S. adults. The population consisted of household residents who were either black or white, non-institutionalized, English speaking, and at least 65 years of age. Responses were only collected from currently practicing Christians, those who identified as Christians in the past but no longer practice any religion, and those not affiliated with any faith at any point in their lifetime. The present analysis is based upon 1,024 individuals who participated in both waves of the survey.

“Given that religious music is available to most individuals — even those with health problems or physical limitations that might preclude participating in more formal aspects of religious life — it might be a valuable resource for promoting mental health later in the life course,” the authors wrote, according to the news release.

How often did the respondents listen to religious and/or gospel music?

The survey respondents were asked how often they listened to both religious music and gospel music on a scale ranging from “never” to “several times a day.” Death anxiety, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and sense of control were measures how strongly the respondent agreed with a series of statements.

These included, but were not limited to, “I find it hard to face up to the fact that I will die,” “These are the best years of my life,” “I take a positive attitude toward myself,” and “I have a lot of influence over most things that happen in my life.”

The Gerontologist is a peer-reviewed publication of The Gerontological Society of America (GSA), the nation's oldest and largest interdisciplinary organization devoted to research, education, and practice in the field of aging. The principal mission of the Society — and its 5,500+ members — is to advance the study of aging and disseminate information among scientists, decision makers, and the general public. GSA’s structure also includes a policy institute, the National Academy on an Aging Society, and an educational branch, the Association for Gerontology in Higher Education.

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