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50+: Live Better, Longer

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The private prayer study continued...

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.

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