Health Promoting Habits of People Who Pray for Their Health
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- Harrigan, J.T. J Relig Health (2011) 50: 602. doi:10.1007/s10943-009-9293-3
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To determine the health habits of people who pray for their health, data from the National Health Interview Survey was analyzed for health habits of people who prayed or did not pray for their health. Of the 22,314 respondents, 13,179 (59%) prayed for their health. These individuals saw a physician more frequently, participated more frequently in vigorous exercise and used more relaxation techniques, support groups, meditation and complimentary and alternative medicine therapies. People who pray for their health participate in more health promoting behaviors than people who do not pray for their health.
Scientific interest in the association of religion and health has increased in recent years. The association of religious practices and health has been studied from multiple aspects and various proxies for religion such as religious activities, attendance at religious services and prayer have been used. Positive relationships have been found between religious activities and social support, better psychologic health and better physical health (Koenig et al. 2004). Frequency of attendance at religious services has been found to be associated with lower blood pressure (Koenig et al. 1998; Gillum and Ingram 2006) lower risk of death (Koenig et al. 1999) and better survival (Gillum et al. 2008).
Use of prayer for health was recently included in the National Health Interview Survey 2007 (NHIS), a representative sample of the United States. A subset of the survey asked participants about the use of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) and included prayer as part of the survey. The survey found that 37% of individuals used some form of CAM and when prayer was included, CAM use rose to 62%. Studies have shown that individuals believe that prayer can heal both physical and mental health (Mackenzie et al. 2000; Barnes et al. 2008).
This study was designed to determine if people who pray for their health have different health related habits than people who do not pray for their health.
The study analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) 2007 conducted by the National Center for Health Statistics, US Department of Health and Human Services. The survey recorded data from a statistically representative sample of the US population. The survey interviewed 75,764 individuals. The subsets of the survey used for the study were the adult core component, the family core component and the complimentary alternative supplement.
Respondents were asked if they prayed for their health, if they saw a general medical doctor in the past 12 months, if they had a “flu shot” in the past 12 months, how often they participated in vigorous physical activity and if they used support groups, relaxation techniques, and meditation in the past 12 months. Individuals were asked about their participation in vigorous activity recorded as less than once a week to 28 times a week. For the study, a dichotomous variable was created for vigorous activity of less than once a week versus all others. Individuals were asked about their perceived health status recorded on a 5-point scale of excellent to poor. For the study, a dichotomous variable was created for excellent, very good, good, and fair versus poor.
The CAM survey included questions about use of CAM therapies during the preceding 12 months. Respondents were asked about use of individual CAM therapies. For the purpose of this study, the variables were grouped into 13 therapies. The 13 CAM therapies used for this study were acupuncture, ayurveda, biofeedback, chelation therapy, chiropractic or osteopathic manipulation, energy healing therapy, diet, hypnosis, massage, naturopathy, yoga, herbal therapies, and homeopathic use. All forms of diet and all herbal therapies were aggregated into single variables of any use of herbs and use of any diet. Diets aggregated into a single variable were vegetarian, microbiotic, Atkins, Pritkin, Ornish, Zone, and South Beach. For the purpose of the study, an additional variable was created for the use of any form of CAM therapy.
Data on age, race, income, and education were recorded. For the study, age was dichotomized into a single variable of up to 40 years, and 40 years or more. Education was dichotomized into a single variable of up to and including high school graduation and beyond high school. Income was dichotomized into a single variable of up to $45,000 per year and $45,000 or more per year.
Descriptive statistics were used to calculate frequency of use of CAM and frequency of disclosure of the use to their physician. Chi square and Fishers exact test were used to compare demographic factors with CAM use and disclosure of that use. Independent sample T tests were used to compare means and standard deviations. Logistic regression was used to calculate odds rations and confidence limits. Multiple logistic regression was used to control for confounding variables. The SPSS 16.0 statistical package was used. Significance was at P = 0.05.
Characteristics of individuals who prayed or did not pray for their health
Prayed for health
Born in US
Behavioral habits of people who prayed for their health or did not pray for their health
Prayed for health
In a multiple logistic regression model CAM (OR 1.3) (95% CI 1.173–1.444) P = 0.000, seeing physician (OR 1.383) (95% CI 1.247–1.535) P = 0.000 and vigorous activity (OR 1.513) (95% CI 1.126–2.033) P = 0.006 were independently related to prayer for health.
In this representative sample of the United States, many people prayed for their health and those people who prayed for their health had a life style that included many behaviors that have a potential to improve health.
Religious activities in general have been shown to improve health. Studies have shown an improvement in psychologic well-being, subjective well-being, physical well-being and depression related to religious activities (Lawler-Row and Elliot 2009; Cruz et al. 2009; Koenig et al. 2004; Mackenzie et al. 2000). Spirituality is also correlated with the World Health Organizations quality of life indicators (WHOQOL SRPB Group 2006). From the standpoint of physical signs and symptoms, religious activities are associated with lower blood pressure (Koenig et al. 1998) death (Gillum et al. 2008; Koenig et al. 1999) and lower plasma lipids (Friedlander et al. 1987).
Studies undertaken to determine how religious activities affect health have searched for intermediary mechanisms for the outcome. Religious activities have been shown to reduce cardiovascular inflammatory markers (King et al. 2001) improve interleukins-6 levels (Koenig et al. 1997) and improve the immune status in women with metastatic breast cancer (Sephton et al. 2001). Others have found reciting the Hail Mary or yoga mantras resulted in a beneficial slow breathing rhythm and increased the arterial baroreceptors to a favorable status (Bernardi et al. 2001).
As shown by this study, individuals who pray for their health participate more frequently in health promoting activities. The health benefits of some of these behaviors such as seeing a physician, obtaining a “flu shot”, and vigorous activity are simple to explain. Other methods used for health improvement such as CAM therapies are undergoing increased investigation, and evidence is emerging about beneficial health effects. The effects of prayer on health has been studied from the standpoint of meditation and both prayer and meditation produce beneficial effects such as improvement of depression (Patel et al. 1975; Bernardi et al. 2001), reduction in blood pressure and improvement of cardiovascular rhythms (Anderson et al. 2008).
People who participate in religious activities lead a lifestyle that includes many activities that have the potential to improve health either directly or through changes in the body’s physiology. This study supports the multidimensional view that prayer acts through many pathways to affect health. This view is held by a significant number of people. Two surveys found that individuals believe that prayer can heal both physical and mental illness and God was perceived to work through physicians, loving friends and helpful strangers (Mackenzie et al. 2000; Mansfield et al. 2002).
It is apparent that many health promoting activities are present when people pray for their health. Whether there is a cause and affect relationship cannot be determined. More longitudinal studies are needed to determine the affect of prayer on health when controlling for all other factors. The inclusion of prayer as a part of CAM research would help to better define its role in healthcare.