Atheism and Alzheimer's disease

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A PET scan of the brain of an individual with Alzheimer's disease reveals a loss of function in the temporal lobe.

Alzheimer's disease is "characterised by loss of neurons and synapses in the cerebral cortex and certain subcortical regions. This loss results in gross atrophy of the affected regions, including degeneration in the temporal lobe and parietal lobe, and parts of the frontal cortex and cingulate gyrus.[1] Some of the primary symptoms of alzheimer's disease are: memory problems, mood swings, emotional outbursts, brain stem damage which impairs function in the heart, lungs plus causes disruption of various other bodily processes.[2]

The current global atheist population mostly resides in East Asia (particularly China) and in secular Europe/Australia primarily among whites.[3] See: Global atheism

Alzheimer's disease is more common among the elderly and in terms of global atheism and aging populations, global atheism is facing significant challenges in terms of aging populations in East Asia and Europe and atheism is expected to shrink in terms of its market share of the world's population (see: Desecularization).

Religious practices and the progression of Alzheimer's disease

See also: Atheism and the brain

Brain researchers have conducted a number of studies focusing on the differences between atheists and the religious. See: Atheism and the brain

The American Academy of Neurology reported:

Spirituality and the practice of religion may help slow the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, according to research that will be presented at the American Academy of Neurology 57th Annual Meeting in Miami Beach, Fla., April 9 – 16, 2005.

The study assessed 68 people aged 49 to 94 who met criteria for probable Alzheimer’s disease. Religiosity and spirituality were measured with the validated Duke University Religion Index and the Overall Self-Ranking subscale from the NIH/Fetzer Brief Multidimensional Measure of Religiousness/Spirituality. These methods collected information on the patients’ practices such as attendance at religious events and private religious activities.

“We learned that the patients with higher levels of spirituality or higher levels of religiosity may have a significantly slower progression of cognitive decline,” said study author Yakir Kaufman, MD, who conducted the research as a fellow at of the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Ontario and is now the director of neurology services at The Sarah Herzog Memorial Hospital in Jerusalem, Israel.

“Spirituality and religiosity have been linked to better health outcomes,” said Kaufman. “Our research addressed the question whether this link is also relevant in Alzheimer’s disease.”

Spirituality and private religious practices accounted for 20 percent of the total variance. Kaufman said that further studies are needed to better understand the connection between religiosity and cognitive decline.

“These findings may warrant an interventional study looking at the possible effect of enhancement of spiritual well-being as a means of slowing cognitive decline,” said Kaufman.[4]

The abstract for the 1990 journal article Spirituality, religion, and Alzheimer's disease published in the Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy indicates:

The chaplain's ministry to persons with dementia, often of the Alzheimer's type, is vitally relevant to their clinical well-being. No chaplain should even think that because someone is demented, they can no longer be reached spiritually. While few scientific studies exist, clinical experience and anecdotal accounts suggest that selected pastoral interventions can enhance the quality of life of the mildly, moderately, and even severely demented individual.[5]

Nun study and Alzheimer's disease

The New York Times reported on the famous Nun Study relating to Alzheimer's disease:

Overall, Dr. Snowdon says, the nuns live significantly longer than other women. Of the 678 in the study, 295 are alive and are all 85 or older. In the Mankato convent alone, there have been seven centenarians, many free of dementia.[6]

The abstract for the 2003 journal article Healthy aging and dementia: findings from the Nun Study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine states:

The Nun Study is a longitudinal study of 678 Catholic sisters 75 to 107 years of age who are members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame congregation. Data collected for this study include early and middle-life risk factors from the convent archives, annual cognitive and physical function evaluations during old age, and postmortem neuropathologic evaluations of the participants' brains. The case histories presented include a centenarian who was a model of healthy aging, a 92-year-old with dementia and clinically significant Alzheimer disease neuropathology and vascular lesions, a cognitively and physically intact centenarian with almost no neuropathology, and an 85-year-old with well-preserved cognitive and physical function despite a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer disease and an abundance of Alzheimer disease lesions. These case histories provide examples of how healthy aging and dementia relate to the degree of pathology present in the brain and the level of resistance to the clinical expression of the neuropathology.[7]

Regular prayer/meditation and larger frontal lobes

See also: Religiosity and larger frontal lobes and Atheism and the brain and Religious individuals and thicker cerebral cortices

Graphic of cerebral lobes. Light brown section of the graphic depicts the area of the frontal lobe. (Click on graphic to enlarge)

According to Scientific American:

Several studies have revealed that people who practice meditation or have prayed for many years exhibit increased activity and have more brain tissue in their frontal lobes, regions associated with attention and reward, as compared with people who do not meditate or pray.[8]

The Centre for Neuro Skills say about the frontal lobes and their function:

The frontal lobes are considered our emotional control center and home to our personality. There is no other part of the brain where lesions can cause such a wide variety of symptoms (Kolb & Wishaw, 1990). The frontal lobes are involved in motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgement, impulse control, and social and sexual behavior. The frontal lobes are extremely vulnerable to injury due to their location at the front of the cranium, proximity to the sphenoid wing and their large size. MRI studies have shown that the frontal area is the most common region of injury following mild to moderate traumatic brain injury (Levin et al., 1987).

There are important asymmetrical differences in the frontal lobes. The left frontal lobe is involved in controlling language related movement, whereas the right frontal lobe plays a role in non-verbal abilities. Some researchers emphasize that this rule is not absolute and that with many people, both lobes are involved in nearly all behavior.[9]

Healthline.com declares about the frontal lobe:

The frontal lobe is the part of the brain that controls important cognitive skills in humans, such as emotional expression, problem solving, memory, language, judgment, and sexual behavior. It is, in essence, the “control panel” of our personality and our ability to communicate.

It is also responsible for primary motor function, or our ability to consciously move our muscles, and the two key areas related to speech, including Broca’s area.

The frontal lobe is larger and more developed in humans than in any other organism.[10]

The health writer Molly McAdams writes about the function of the frontal lobes:

Higher-level thinking is supported by the frontal lobes. Activity in these lobes allows us to reason, make judgments, make plans for the near and far future, make choices, take action, solve problems and generally control our living environment. Without fully functioning frontal lobes, you may have intelligence, but you wouldn’t be able to put it to use.[11]

Reluctance of Western atheists to engage in meditation

Atheist Greta Christina wrote: "A lot of atheists, humanists, and other nonbelievers are leery or dismissive of meditation and mindfulness."[12]

The atheist Greta Christina wrote at the website Humananist.com:

A lot of atheists, humanists, and other nonbelievers are leery or dismissive of meditation and mindfulness. Some see it as an irretrievably religious or spiritual practice, and want no part in it. Others are put off by the faddish, overused, buzzword quality of the practice and the terminology. And I can understand that. For years, I stayed away from trying this stuff out, for exactly those reasons. I was interested in the practice—I had friends who did it, and who seemed to get a lot out of it. But I couldn’t find anyplace to learn that didn’t base their teaching on Buddhism or some other religion. And I’m too ardent an anti-religionist to “take what you need and leave the rest,” the way many nonbelievers do with religion. After all, I literally wrote the book on angry atheism. For me, trying to learn meditation in a Buddhist center would be like trying to learn meditation in a room full of fingernails scraping on blackboards.[13]

Although many atheists in the Western World are reluctant to meditate, in the East nontheist Buddhists often practice meditation.[14]

Atheism vs. theism, purpose in life and rate of Alzheimer's disease

See also: Atheism and purpose and Atheism and meaninglessness

ABC News reported:

Patients who maintain a greater sense of purpose in life as they age may have greater protection against Alzheimer's disease, researchers have found.

Those with a purpose had more than a 50 percent reduced risk of the disease, Dr. Patricia A. Boyle of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and colleagues reported in the March issue of the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.[15]

Atheists have a higher suicide rate than theists.[16][17] See: Atheism and suicide

Under an atheist worldview, there is no objective meaning or purpose in life.[18] Through Jesus Christ, Christianity offers objective meaning and purpose to life.[19] See also: Atheism and purpose and Atheism and inspiration

As adults, children who attended religious services regularly are 47 percent more likely to have a high sense of mission and purpose.[20]

In December 2003, the University of Warwick reported:

Dr. Stephen Joseph, from the University of Warwick, said: "Religious people seem to have a greater purpose in life, which is why they are happier. Looking at the research evidence, it seems that those who celebrate the Christian meaning of Christmas are on the whole likely to be happier.[21]

Effects of Spiritual Group Therapy on Caregiver Strain in Home Caregivers of the Elderly with Alzheimer's Disease

The abstract of the 2017 journal article Effects of Spiritual Group Therapy on Caregiver Strain in Home Caregivers of the Elderly with Alzheimer's Disease published in the Archives of Psychiatric Nursing indicated:

Care of patients with Alzheimer's disease is one of the most difficult types of care that exposes the caregiver to a high level of care strain. The present research aimed at determining the effect of spiritual care on caregiver strain of the elderly with Alzheimer's disease...

Spiritual care can reduce care strain in home caregivers of the elderly with Alzheimer's disease.[22]

Secular Europe and Alzheimer's disease

See also: Secular Europe

Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are putting an enormous socio-economic burden on healthcare systems, families, and caregivers. Populations in Europe are ageing, and with this will grow the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease.

If left unchecked, roughly 9 million people in the EU are expected to have dementia by 2030 – approaching twice the population of Denmark.[23]

From a global perspective, Europe is more secular/atheistic than the rest of the world although it does have a considerable amount of religious immigrants who have significantly higher birth rates (see: Secular Europe and Atheist population and Global atheism).

According to Politico:

Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias are putting an enormous socio-economic burden on healthcare systems, families, and caregivers. Populations in Europe are ageing, and with this will grow the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease. If left unchecked, roughly 9 million people in the EU are expected to have dementia by 2030 – approaching twice the population of Denmark.[24]

According to the abstract of the 2017 journal article Prevalence and incidence of Alzheimer's disease in Europe: A meta-analysis published in the journal Neurologia:

The prevalence of Alzheimer's disease in Europe was estimated at 5.05% (95% CI, 4.73-5.39). The prevalence in men was 3.31% (95% CI, 2.85-3.80) and in women, 7.13% (95% CI, 6.56-7.72), and increased with age. The incidence of Alzheimer's disease in Europe was 11.08 per 1000 person-years (95% CI, 10.30-11.89). Broken down by sex, it was 7.02 per 1000 person-years (95% CI, 6.06-8.05) in men and 13.25 per 1000 person-years (95% CI, 12.05-14.51) in women; again these rates increased with age.[25]

Atheist controlled mainland China and Alzheimer's disease

See also: China and atheism

China has the largest atheist population in the world.[26]

China has the world's largest atheist population.[27][28] China practices state atheism (see: China and atheism).

East Asia contains about 25 percent of the world’s population. China’s population represents 20 percent of the people on earth.[29]

Razib Khan points out in Discover Magazine, "most secular nations in the world are those of East Asia, in particular what are often termed “Confucian societies.” It is likely therefore that the majority of the world’s atheists are actually East Asian."[30] See: Asian atheism and Global atheism

China and Alzheimer's disease

In 2017, the South China Morning Post indicated:

No health care problem looms larger in China than Alzheimer’s disease. It is the fastest-growing major disease on the mainland, with at least 9.5 million ­sufferers and perhaps as many undiagnosed cases. Almost a million Chinese are diagnosed every year with Alzheimer’s, with the number of new cases expected to rise sharply by around 2030.

Of the major diseases in China, Alzheimer’s also has the greatest mismatch between the number of patients and amount of specialised care available. [31]

See also

References

  1. Neurodegeneration in Alzheimer's and Parkinson's
  2. Alzheimer's disease
  3. A surprising map of where the world’s atheists live, By Max Fisher and Caitlin Dewey, Washington Post, May 23, 2013
  4. SPIRITUALITY, RELIGIOUS PRACTICE MAY SLOW PROGRESSION OF ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE, American Academy of Neurology
  5. Spirituality, religion, and Alzheimer's disease. by SG1, Whitehouse PJ., Journal of Health Care Chaplaincy, 1999;8(1-2):45-57.
  6. Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging, Nuns Offer Clues to Alzheimer's and Aging], By PAM BELLUCKMAY 7, 2001
  7. Healthy aging and dementia: findings from the Nun Study', Snowdon DA, Annals of Internal Medicine 2003 Sep 2;139(5 Pt 2):450-4.
  8. Ask the Brains, Scientific American, Dec 23, 2011
  9. Frontal lobes, The Centre for Neuro Skills
  10. Frontal lobe, Healthline.com
  11. [What Are the Functions of Frontal Lobe of Brain?] by Molly McAdams
  12. Mind is Matter, Greta Christina, The Humanist.com
  13. Mind is Matter, Greta Christina, The Humanist.com
  14. Christians Talk about Buddhist Meditation, Buddhists Talk About Christian Prayer, edited by Rita M. Gross, Terry C. Muck, page 89
  15. Living a Purposeful Life Can Stave Off Alzheimer's by KRISTINA FIORE, ABC News, March 2, 2010
  16. Religious affiliation and suicide rate
  17. Adherents.com - suicide rates
  18. How to Help Prevent Your Child from Becoming an Atheist by Joe Carter
  19. http://www.scienceblog.com/community/older/2003/A/20037338.html
  20. [Effects of Spiritual Group Therapy on Caregiver Strain in Home Caregivers of the Elderly with Alzheimer's Disease] by Mahdavi B1, Fallahi-Khoshknab M2, Mohammadi F1, Hosseini MA1, Haghi M1., Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 2017 Jun;31(3):269-273. doi: 10.1016/j.apnu.2016.12.003. Epub 2016 Dec 7.
  21. Addressing Alzheimer’s disease in Europe: What still needs to be done?, Politico, 2016
  22. Addressing Alzheimer’s disease in Europe: What still needs to be done?, Politico, 2016
  23. Prevalence and incidence of Alzheimer's disease in Europe: A meta-analysis by Niu H1, Álvarez-Álvarez I2, Guillén-Grima F3, Aguinaga-Ontoso I2., Neurologia. 2017 Oct;32(8):523-532. doi: 10.1016/j.nrl.2016.02.016. Epub 2016 Apr 26.
  24. Top 50 Countries With Highest Proportion of Atheists / Agnostics (Zuckerman, 2005)
  25. A surprising map of where the world’s atheists live, Washington Post By Max Fisher and Caitlin Dewey May 23, 2013
  26. The Growth of Christianity in East Asia
  27. Most atheists are not white & other non-fairy tales, Discover magazine
  28. China’s millions of Alzheimer’s patients cannot wait any longer for specialised care, South China Morning Post, 2017