Prayer or some sort of spiritual practice is, and always has been part of the great cultures of the world. Connecting to something outside of ourselves brings comfort, a sense of peace, and generally makes us feel better. Clinical studies have demonstrated that prayer can effect one's health. There seems to be a relationship between those who frequently pray and their longevity. Prayer is also linked to success in avoidance and recovery from addictions, such as alcohol and drugs.

There are even established reports in which people were able to influence a variety of cellular and other biological processes through mental means, for example, when someone is healed by the "laying on of hands." 

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Religion and Community

Because humans evolved as social animals, our brains are programmed to connect us with others to improve our chances for survival. Anything that promotes a sense of isolation leads to chronic stress and often to illness; therefore, we constantly seek functional or conscience community in which to belong. Studies have shown that people with the weakest social ties have significantly higher death rates. Interactions with a larger social group draws our attention outside ourselves, enlarging our focus, enhancing our ability to cope, and making the brain more stable and the person less vulnerable to disease. Traits such as stable marriages, hopeful outlooks, and mental relaxation are found more in religious people than in the general population. Older people with religious beliefs and connections show less disability from chronic diseases. Whether a cure is inspired by divine inspiration or emotional responsiveness, requesting healing through prayer seems to have a positive effect on any course of treatment. 

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Community prayer and worship helps to ease an reduce stress levels. Most support groups embrace faith or a belief in a High Power as part of their community culture. Whether faith or the sense of community offers the strongest support for wellness is not known, but positive results have been proven. For example, metastatic breast cancer patients who joined a support group lived nearly twice as long as those receiving medical care only. People with heart disease who live alone are twice as likely to die from a second heart attack. Comparing thirty-eight married women with thirty-eight separated or divorced women, the married group had better immune functions that the unmarried women. There are indications that distance-prayer can be effective also. In a San Francisco hospital in 1988, people outside the hospital were asked to pray for 192 coronary care patients over a ten month period. They did not pray for another group of 201 patients. Neither the patients, their families or medical personnel knew which group was being prayed for. Those who were praying were only given the patients name, a few details on their condition and were asked to pray in any way they chose, but to pray each day. The "prayed for" group had less congestive heart failure, required less diuretic and antibiotic therapy, had fewer episodes of pneumonia, fewer cardiac arrests, and were less frequently incubated and ventilated. 

Healing and Faith

Studies show that people of faith:

Results of Some Studies:


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What are Research Findings Concerning Longevity and Religious Commitment?

One striking measure of health benefit is the factor of who lives longer. Studies of "mortality" - or the rate of death over a certain period of time in study populations - clearly points out prevention or benefit.

We will look at three epidemiological studies that examine the relationship of religious commitment with death rates or mortality.

As a result of what was discussed earlier ... what particular measures of religion are employed when examining the relationship of religious commitment to physical health? What measure do you think was most often used in less-recent studies?

Examining the Research

A case controlled study of an elderly population living in the vicinity of New Haven, Connecticut, was followed during two years. In a case control research design, subjects are selected according to certain criteria was assessed using three measures:

1) frequency of attendance at religious service
2) how religious one views oneself
3) how inportant religion is as personal source of strength

In this study age, marital status, education, income, race, gender, the person's health and previous hospitalizations were all controlled for. 


After two years of follow-up, the less religious had mortality levels twice those of the more religious.

Examining Further Mortality Research

In an 8 to 10 year follow-up of 2700 persons participating in an epidemiological community health study in Tecumseh, social factors were analyzed to see which might effectively reduce mortality rates. It revealed only one for women once the other appropriate risk factors were controlled for. That factor was increased church attendance. In this study, church attendance was not found to be protective for men; it was protective for women. 

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Examining Additional Mortality Research

Deaths from a number of causes among adults in Washington County, Maryland, were studied by Comstock and Partridge, who assessed whether frequency of church attendance had any bearing on living longer. 

First, the researchers, over a three-year period, examined death rates among white males who died from arteriosclerotic disease and noted their pattern of church attendance before death. From the census population, the researchers selected still-living controls who were selected and matched by age, gender and race to the persons who had died. The effects of smoking, socio-economic status and water hardness were controlled for statistically. 

Second, the researchers looked at deaths among white females aged 45 to 64 during a five-year period from the causes of arteriosclerotic heart disease, cancer of the rectum and cancer of the color. Deaths during a three-year period due to pulmonary emphysema or cirrhosis of the liver and over a six-year period due to suicide were also examined in relation to frequency of church attendance.


The study found that the risk of dying from arteriosclerotic heart disease was much less for men who attended church weekly or more often. Even after allowing for the effects of smoking, socio-economic status and water hardness, the risk for the frequent church attendees was only 60 percent for the men who attended church infrequently. The risk of dying from sclerotic heart disease among women was about twice as high among infrequent church attendees compared to those who attended church weekly or more often.

Death rates from pulmonary emphysema and suicide were also more than twice as high for infrequent attendees. Death by cirrhosis of the liver was nearly four times as high. The authors note that the liver findings could quite possibly be the result of higher alcoholism among women who choose not to attend church frequently. 

No such association between church attendance and increased mortality risk was found for deaths from rectum or colon cancer among women. 

The authors conclude: "Even if the mechanism of association of (less frequent) church attendance with disease is not discovered, this attribute, like that of smoking, could still prove useful in identifying groups at increased risk of suffering from a number of important diseases." 

Source: Larson, David B., and Larson, Susan S. The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Health: What Does the Research Show? An Independent Study Seminar, (1994)

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What are Research Findings Concerning Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Disease? 

In further investigation, have other studies found religious commitment to be a factor in the prevention of Cardiovascular Disease - the number one killer in America?

Levin and Vanderpool (1989) surveyed the epidemiological literature in order to summarize the findings.

Examining the Research

A comprehensive overview of empirical research on religious factors in blood pressure was undertaken. Nearly 20 studies published over 30 years were found. Outcome variables in these studies included mean blood pressure, hypertensive heart disease mortality and history of hypertension.

Measures of religion included 

religious attendance, church membership, religious affiliation, ethnic traditions within Judaism, monastic orders, clergy status, religious education and the self-reported personal importance of religion. 

The reviewers grouped the diverse types of studies into two categories:

This second set examined differences in blood pressure variables by contrasting a religious group or denomination with all those outside of it, or Adventists contrasted to Mormons. 


The findings of these studies indicated that religious commitment is associated with lower blood pressure and that several religious groups or denominations studied have relatively low rates of hypertension-related morbidity and mortality.

Among the religious commitment studies, all but one study suggested that certain religious commitment measures were associated with lower blood pressure or lower rates of hypertension. Five studies supported a protective effect of religion. A sixth revealed a strong, but statistically non-significant protective trend. A seventh study indicated the opposite, however its cross-sectional design makes interpretation difficult.

Studies of differences in blood pressure across religious affiliations suggested that adherents to clearly demarcated religious groups - especially highly devout behaviorally strict groups, such as Baptist clergy, Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons - have significantly lower rates of hypertension-related morbidity and mortality than comparison populations.

The authors conclude; "Hypertension is a common and serious problem which appears to be mitigated by religion ..."

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Identifying Implications

The authors discuss that one partial explanation of the positive effects of religious affiliation on lowering blood pressure and incidence of cardiovascular disease is that the adherents follow certain health-producing behaviors as part of an expression of their religious commitment.

For instance, Seventh Day Adventists are directed to be vegetarians, Baptists are encouraged to avoid alcohol, and Mormons are warned against caffeine and alcohol. These can help reduce cardiovascular risk factors such as intake of saturated fat, cholesterol and alcohol. 

However, the motivation for these behaviors can entail a religious perspective that relates responsibility for personal behavior to a relationship with a transcendent being or God. This relationship may have other psychodynamic impact engendering greater peacefulness, self-confidence and purpose which may also be reflected in lower blood pressure. Furthermore, other unmeasured, superempirical or supernatural influences may be operation, the authors note. 

What are Further Research Findings Concerning Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Disease?

Having looked at an overview of studies which indicates the benefit of religious commitment toward lowering blood pressure, we will now look at a particular community study which also examines the association. This study was published the same year as the Levin and Vanderpool article and thus, not included in that review. 

Entitled, "The Impact of Religion on Men's Blood Pressure," this study looked at, not only the effect of frequency or religious attendance on blood pressure, but also examined whether the personal importance of religion made a difference or not. Was either variable more protective against higher blood pressure than the other? What was the effect when frequency of attendance and importance of religion were taken into account? 

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Examining the Research


The relation between blood pressure, personal importance of religion and frequency of church attendance was examined among a sample of rural, white men free from hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Analyses were also adjusted for the factors of age, socioeconomic status, smoking and weight-height ratio. The men had their blood pressure measured in their left arm three different times during about a seventy minute period. The questions measuring frequency of attendance and the importance of one's religion were:

1) Are you a church-goer? If yes, how often do you generally attend? (with nine response options ranging from daily to never)

2) Quite aside from church going, how important, in general, would you say religion is to you: very important, somewhat important or not important at all?

The frequency measure was then categorized into high attendees - those who attended weekly or more often - and those who attended less than once a week.

The importance of religion measure was categorized into high importance - those who responded that religion was very important to them - and low importance - those who responded with "somewhat or "not important." 


The most profound effect on blood pressure was found among men who attended church weekly or more often and who also ranked religion as very important to them.

For those with high importance and high attendance, mean diastolic pressures were significantly lower than those of the low importance and low attendance group -almost 5mm lower.

A reduction of a population's mean blood pressure by as little as 2 to 4mm could reduce cardiovascular disease by nearly 10% to 20%. Furthermore, a difference of 5mm to 10mm could affect the decision of whether or not to prescribe anti-hypertension medication whose side effects may include depression or diminished quality of life. 

Consequently, these findings demonstrate an inexpensive intervention - chuch attendance - which could reduce blood pressure by 5mm. This could have a significant impact on health. 

The two "mixed" groups - those with high attendance but low importance or low attendance but high meaning - had blood pressures that were in between the two extremes. They had lower pressures than the low attendance-low importance group but higher pressure than the high attendance-high importance group.

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Other significant findings were uncovered when the study population was stratified by age, and also, when a comparison of smokers versus nonsmokers was undertaken:

This was contrasted to non-smokers in whom no significant difference in blood pressure was seen between those rating religion as very important and those who did not.  -Furthermore, among smokers, those who attended church weekly or more often were 4 times less likely to have abnormal diastolic pressure than low or non-attendees.

Identifying Implications

The findings showed the personal importance of religion to be more strongly associated with lowered blood pressure than church attendance. However, the greatest impact toward lower blood pressure was for the group which rated the religion as very important to them personally and also attended church weekly or more often. Consequently, it appears that among men, in this sample at least, it was not enough to highly regard their faith but important to also attend religious services for the greatest impact in protecting against high blood pressure. 

Turning to the smoking findings, even after adjusting for the confounding effects of age, socioeconomic class and the weight-height ratio, blood pressures were significantly lower among smokers reporting high religious importance compared to smokers with low religious importance. In fact, the risk of diastolic hypertension among smokers who did not see their religion as important to them was greater than 4 times that of smokers with high importance. 

These findings are striking because the benefits of religion on health is often assumed to be the result of religious motivation for following healthier practices, such as not smoking, avoiding alcohol and abstaining from harmful dietary practices. In this study, however, it was among the smokers that religious importance made the biggest difference in blood pressure. Consequently, the health benefit of religious commitment went beyond avoiding health-risk behavior. 

What might account for the fact that the personal importance of religion and frequency of religious attendance were associated with lower blood pressure?

Concerning the lower blood pressure among smokers in this study who rated the personal importance of religion highly compared to the smokers who did not, the authors note, "This may reflect a preferentially greater moderating effect for religion on blood pressure among more tense or nervous individuals who may also be more likely to smoke."

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The fact that the importance of religion can have an impact on physiological process and cardiovascular status has been noted by Moberg. He proposed that a "meaningful and purposeful relationship with God" will improve the nature of one's relationships with one's self and with others. Acting through psycho-physiologically mediated processes that might influence blood pressure and other cardiovascular processes, particular, beneficial, religious behavior might include:

1) Coming to terms with forgiving oneself

2) Developing emotionally healthier self-concepts

3) Giving unselfishly to others

4) Coming to terms with forgiving others

The amount of blood pressure reduction found among men to whom religion is personally very important and who attend church weekly, or more often, is a clinical benefit worth noting. It could mean the difference in having to prescribe anti-hypertensive medicine or not and avoiding the side effects of this medication. 

Furthermore, the authors note cardiovascular risk increases with even smaller increases in blood pressure. The majority of deaths resulting from higher blood pressures occur at pressures below treatment thresholds. Consequently, any factor that can reduce blood pressure is clinically very significant. 

Source: Larson, David B., and Larson, Susan S. The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Health: What Does the Research Show? An Independent Study Seminar, (1994)

What are Research Findings Concerning Alcohol Abuse?

Do the finings in alcohol abuse parallel those with drug abuse? Does the absence of religious commitment predict those who abuse alcohol?

Examining the Research

Articles concerning the association between religious commitment - or its absence - and alcohol abuse were examined.


In parallel with drug abusers, studies revealed that alcohol abusers rarely had a strong religious commitment. This indicates that religious commitment reduces the risk of alcoholism.

In their study of the religious lives of alcoholics, Wilson and Larson found that 89% of alcoholics had lost interest in religion during their teenage years, whereas among the community controls, 48% had increased interest in religion and 32% had remained unchanged.

Furthermore, a relationship between religious commitment and the non-use of moderate use of alcohol has been comprehensively documented. Amoateng and Bahr stare that whether or not religion specifically teaches against alcohol use, those who are active in a religious group consumed substantially less alcohol than those who were not active. 

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Argyle and Beit-Hallahmi found a negative relationship between consuming alcohol and personal religious commitment and church attendance in the four studies they reviewed.

Six of thy seven studies in Gartner's review confirmed that those with a higher level of religious involvement are less likely to use or abuse alcohol. The one study which found no difference examined addicted versus non-addicted offenders who were driving while intoxicated. 

In another study of more than 2000 randomly selected persons in Puerto Rico, those who claimed no religious affiliation had a higher rate of alcoholism. However, this effect was nullified when controlling for gender, since men were more likely to drink and claim no religious affiliation. Nonetheless, the two other studies that did control for gender sustained the finding that religious participation predicts lowered alcohol use and abuse.

Even after alcoholism has been established, religion is often a powerful force in achieving abstinence. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) uses religion, invoking a Higher Power to help alcoholics recover from addiction.

Food for Thought

Based on this research, how relevant is religious commitment in preventing and treating alcoholism? Who do you think might be interested in thes findings for prevention or recovery?

Source: Larson, David B. and Larson, Susan S. The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Health: What Does the Research Show? An Independent Study Seminar, (1994)

Religious Commitment and Psychological Stress

What are Research Findings Concerning Psychological Stress and Sense of Well-Being?

Is a sense of well-being related to religious commitment? CAn religious commitment reduce the amount of psychological distress when adverse circumstances occur?

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Examining the Research

A longitudinal study of 720 randomly sampled adults in the metropolitan area of New Haven were interviewed at two different times to examine how two measures of religious involvement - religious association and religious attendance - combine with stress to affect levels of psychological distress.

The study addressed the following questions:

The religious attendance measure looked at the usual frequency of attending religious services, with a range of "1=never to "6=more than once a week". Religious affiliation was based on the question, "Are you affiliated with any church or religious group? (yes or no).

The summary measures of stressful life experiences occurring the two years between the interviews included an index of undesirable life events, as well as a sum of the measures of the number of physical health problems experienced. 

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Persons who attended religious services regularly reported lower levels of psychological distress than infrequent attendees and non-attendees. Furthermore, this remained the case despite age, education, gender, marital status or race.

The attendance levels were relatively stable across the two years.

The analyses further showed that the question of whether one was affiliated with a religious group or not had no bearing on the amount of psychological stress. This reflected findings in other studies that religious practice has more impact than a me4re religious affiliation without religious practice.

"Our findings indicate that religion may be a potent coping strategy that facilitates adjustment to the stress of life," the authors note.

"At low levels of religious attendance, stress is associated with increased levels of psychological distress. However, as the level of religious attendance increases, the adverse consequences of stress are reduced."

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Food for Thought

These findings in which frequency of religious attendance reduced psychological distress among persons undergoing stress from either health problems or undesirable life events caught the attention a a men's magazine - GQ, Gentlemen's Quarterly". An article reported the findings in the health section of their November 1991 issue.

If these popular publications were interested in these findings, who among your colleagues and associates might be interested?

Furthermore, what have other studies found concerning the relationship of religious commitment to reducing stress and a sense of well-being?

Source: Larson, David B., and Larson, Susan S. The Forgotten Factor in Physical and Mental Health: What Does the Research Show? An Independent Study Seminar, (1994)

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