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.