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Thoughtful reflection

The private prayer study continued...

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.

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