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Monday, November 3, 2008

Uncovering the Mysteries of Healthy Aging

FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: Increasingly, studies are uncovering the value and benefits of health, and awareness of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle is a major factor in creating an ecology of healthy aging. Last month, The Week magazine cited a study from the Harvard School of Public Health that looked at the health record of thousands of people over a three-decade span. No surprise, they found that healthier lifestyles equated to longer lives. In my work with the Sacred Aging project of the Union for Reform Judaism, it is not unusual to observe that baby boomers and the elderly have greater concern for and involvement with their health than do their children and grandchildren.
Gradually, there seems to be growing interest in studying the relationship between extended life and health (no doubt driven by the boomers' own aging process). These studies have validated some religious approaches to this issue. And several years ago, the journal The Gerontologist noted that, “Because of the growing recognition that religious and spiritual beliefs and practices are widespread among the American population and that these beliefs and practices have clinical relevance, professional organizations are increasingly calling for better training of clinicians concerning the management of religious and spiritual issues in assessment, treatment and research.”
Jewish tradition is no stranger to these discussions. The link between health and the spirituality of an individual is part of the daily prayer ritual of the Jew. Judaism is a “holistic” medical model. Health is a commandment that is mandated so that each individual, mindful of his or her relationship with God, can remain in that sacred relationship. Thus, health is a pathway to the sacred and we are commanded to care for the body, which is a gift from God.
In his own medical practice and writings, Maimonides supported this notion that health is a divine path, and he validated the notion that bodily movement is essential to the maintenance of health. In his essay “Preservation on Youth”, Maimonides notes that exercise is the main principle involved in staying healthy and in the repulsion of most illnesses. “And there is no such thing as excessive bodily movement and exercise," he wrote. "Exercise removes the harm caused by most bad habits, which most people have. And no movement is as beneficial, according to the physicians, as body movement and exercise. Exercise refers to both strong and weak movements, providing it is movement that is vigorous and affects breathing, increasing it.”
Health, movement, exercise and their impact on aging are now part of the science and religion discussion—and they're sure to stay. The scientific study of healthy aging is a sacred task.