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Privately Spiritual

Thoughtful reflection

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

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."

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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.

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