Privately Spiritual

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Thoughtful reflection

WebMD Feature

Dec. 4, 2000 -- Every morning, Marjorie Boyle, a 71-year-old resident of suburban Los Angeles, spends 20 minutes quietly reading Scripture and praying. It's an act of private religious faith the retired bank employee has practiced for 40 years.

She prays for the needs of herself, her family, and those close to her, and when she's finished, Boyle says, she's filled with peace and reassurance: "Prayer is my spiritual food."

Boyle credits that nourishment not only with keeping her emotionally centered, but also helping to sustain her physical health. She cooks, keeps house, and acts as sole parent to her granddaughter, now a 21-year-old college student. Her vigor regularly wows her doctor at routine check-ups, and she lists her only health complaint as nothing more than "a little arthritis here and there."

According to recent scientific studies, Boyle isn't the only one who finds benefit in private spirituality. Private prayer and even nonreligious meditation have been shown to correlate with sustained good health and increased longevity.

The private prayer study

In a six-year study looking at the private religious habits of nearly 4,000 elderly residents living in rural North Carolina, Judith C. Hays, PhD, an associate research professor of geriatric psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, and her colleagues found that respondents who had been healthy at the start of the study had a better chance of staying that way if they prayed or read religious texts at home. This was true even if the readings or prayers occurred as infrequently as a few times a month. The researchers published their conclusions in the June 2000 issue of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences.

"It seems to us very logical that if you have a belief that a higher power is available to you when you have any kind of need, that that would produce a level of confidence that could be physically beneficial," Hays tells WebMD.

The recent survey's results are similar to those in dozens of studies that over the years have discovered a positive relationship between religious faith and longevity. Hays and her colleagues, in fact, were the authors of another report, published in Health Psychology, which showed that people who regularly attended religious services tended to have an edge in physical well-being over those who didn't. Possible explanations for the findings included the emotional lift coming from a sense of community and the tendency of religious folk to lead lives free of alcohol abuse and smoking.

Bolstering that finding, the Duke study suggests that those who take their religion home with them may have an even greater physical edge. Hays says 60% of survey respondents attended religious services regularly, and within that group, those who prayed at home tended to maintain their health and live longer than those who didn't. One reason for the added benefit, Hays suggests, may be that private prayer and other at-home religious activities offer practitioners a readily available release valve for stress and anxiety. "It may be that people who pray are just better copers," she says.

Her colleague and study co-author, Harold G. Koenig, MD, an associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, agrees. "If they have stress, they turn to God and that reduces anxiety," Koenig says. "We know that for people who are stressed out, their immune systems and cardiovascular systems don't work as well. For people who can cope better, their immune systems and cardiovascular systems work better."

He also says he believes that private prayer and Bible study can offer solace and comfort to seniors who spend a lot of time by themselves. "God represents a relationship for them," Koenig says. "If they're living alone at home and they don't have anybody else to talk to, they have God."

The study's sample group was composed almost entirely of Protestants (nearly six in 10 of them Baptists), and therefore its findings can't necessarily be extrapolated to other religious groups. Still, Koenig says the results of similar research on those from other faiths likely would be comparable.

The value of meditation

For those who aren't fans of traditional prayer or Bible study, transcendental meditation, or TM, might be another option for better health and longevity. To practice TM, a person sits comfortably for 15 or 20 minutes with eyes closed. Soon, a state of "restful alertness" is experienced, according to advocates, and this, in turn, helps dissolve fatigue and stress while boosting creativity. TM also is said to limit angst and worry, and although it's not necessarily a religious practice, it's arguably a spiritual one that adherents say leaves them with a deep inner peace.

TM has been shown to lower blood pressure and decrease the risk of heart disease, among other benefits, according to Robert Schneider, MD, the dean for the College of Maharishi Vedic Medicine in Fairfield, Iowa, who studies the effects of traditional East Indian relaxation practices on health. For example, a study published in the journal Stroke in March 2000 found that reducing stress through TM can reduce hardening of the carotid arteries in African-American patients with high blood pressure over the age of 20 when measured over a six- to nine-month period. Whether this can be generalized to all races requires further research.

A much earlier study, published in the December 1989 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, also found that TM may have helped increase longevity among a group of 73 seniors (primarily men) averaging 81 years of age at the beginning of the study. After three years, all of those who were trained in and practiced TM were still alive, compared to 65% to 87.5% for those who practiced other relaxation techniques or no techniques.

"TM quite readily and systematically appears to restore the body's own self-repair mechanisms," says Schneider, whose school recently received an $8 million grant from the NIH to research the effects of Vedic medicine on aging.

Other real-life examples

Judith Green, an Orthodox Jew living in Los Angeles' Los Feliz neighborhood, says she doesn't have to wait for more studies to recognize the benefits that 30 years of private prayer have had on her own health. Every Friday at sundown, the start of the Jewish Sabbath, the 62-year-old South Africa native lights traditional Sabbath candles and spends up to 20 minutes praying for herself and her loved ones, asking for guidance and assistance from "a power outside ourselves that can make things possible."

For Green, who describes her health as very good, the practice serves as a weekly reality check. "It helps remind me that I can't control everything in my life," she says. "I just need to have the patience to let things come around on their own if that's what's supposed to happen."

Norma Jean Jahn, who lives in Southern California's sprawling San Fernando Valley, feels similarly. The 74-year-old former accountant for Warner Bros. Records calls her health excellent and attributes much of it to her twice-daily meditation sessions, one before noon and the other around 4 p.m. "It relieves stress, and stress is a killer," she says.

Jahn discovered TM eight years ago and said her introduction to it couldn't have come at a better time. "I think it saved my life," she says. "I was under a tremendous amount of stress, and I felt like I was ready for a stroke or a heart attack. The stress just drained all the energy out of me. It was just a struggle to get through the day."

Now, thanks in part to meditation, Jahn also goes to the gym three days a week. She controls stress, rather than vice versa.

"My life," she says, "has turned around completely."

Stephen Gregory has been a journalist for 10 years and has worked for such publications as The Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and U.S. News and World Report.


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