The data is in. One of the best-kept secrets in medicine is out of the bag. Prayer works.

In a landmark study in the 1980s, prayer was tested in heart patients in a large hospital. Half the patients were prayed for; half (the "controls") were not. The results revealed a significant therapeutic effect from the prayer. Even more interesting, the distant or intercessory prayer worked without the knowledge of the recipient, reports Larry Dossey, MD, in "Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine."

The Faithful Live Longer Lives

And, in what may be the first national investigation of religion's link to longevity, a nine-year study involving 22,000 people found that regular worshipers (both Christian and non-Christian) lived 10% longer than those who never attend services.

The life expectancy for those who attend church weekly was 82 years. Another year of life was added for those who attended more than once per week. In contrast, non-churchgoers lived an average of 75 years.

Many questioned the validity of the study, published in the May 1999 issue of Demography magazine, noting that regular churchgoers tend to lead healthier lifestyles, therefore increasing their longevity. Yet the researchers had adjusted their findings for respondents' incomes, alcohol and tobacco use, marital status and body mass and still came up with their clear conclusions: non-worshipers have the highest risk of early death, and risk decreases as church attendance increases.

"We think there is some cause and effect going on here, beyond health and socio-economics," said Robert Hummer, a University of Texas sociologist and one of the authors, quoted in a story about the study in USA Today. "It does seem that behavior is influenced by church or religious involvement, (and) that affects life expectancy."

What Is Prayer?

Traditionally speaking, prayer is a supplication โ€” asking for something. With prayer, we are usually asking God for something or wishing for things to be different than they are. In meditation, by contrast, we are listening for God to speak to us. Spiritual teacher Sharon Callahan of Mt. Shasta, Calif., often invites her students to do both each day by "asking and listening receptively."

Whether you pray or meditate, entering the silence on a regular basis โ€” in effect, giving yourself a "time out" from the constant "doingness" of daily life โ€” can help guide you toward physical, emotional and spiritual health. When you stop to pray for the answer to a question you can't solve, you may discover that the solution shows up in the space you've created.

When you include prayer in your daily life, says Catholic and cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD, "You may become more open to life, more flexible, more centered. You may find it easier to resolve your problems and cope with stressful situations. Your relationships with others will deepen."

Dr. Sinatra often recommends that his patients consult the book The Miracle of Prayer by Rosemary Ellen Guiley and consider her seven essential practices to enrich prayer life.