May praying

The results are in on praying for the sick. It doesn’t help to have people you don’t know pray for your speedy recovery. Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist, associate professor at Harvard, and Director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, led the study published in the April 2006 issue of American Heart Journal on intercessory prayer. It cost $2.4 million—most of it from a private foundation—and took almost ten years to complete. The researchers wanted to learn whether being prayed for by strangers or knowing that you were being prayed for by others had an impact on recovery after major heart surgery.

 

The study

The study design was of high quality—prospective and randomized with two of the three groups “blinded” to whether they actually received the intervention of intercessory prayer. The study population of 1802 coronary artery bypass patients was randomly divided into three groups. One group received intercessory prayer from members of three different church congregations (two Catholic and one Protestant) daily for 14 days starting the night before their operations. They were told that they may or may not receive prayer. Another group, also uncertain of whether they actually were going to receive prayer, did not, in fact, receive prayer from the congregations. The final group was informed they would, and they did, receive prayer.

The research was unable to find any difference in complications in the first 30 days after surgery between the two groups who were uncertain of their prayer status. Complications occurred in 52% whether they received prayer or not. However, there was an interesting finding with respect to the third group. A significantly higher number of patients who knew they were being prayed for (59%) suffered complications, such as abnormal heart rhythms compared to only 51 percent of those who did not know they were being prayed for. Major events and deaths within 30 days of the operation were the same across all three groups.

 

The conclusions

The authors concluded that intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from bypass surgery, but being certain of receiving prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications. They speculated that being aware that they were being prayed for may have made these patients nervous, an unusual variant of performance anxiety.

Although some people would say, “enough already, let’s not spend any more money studying this phenomenon.” Other interested parties will, undoubtedly, find reason to continue this line of exploration. Indeed, Dr. Charles Bethea, a cardiologist at Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma, a co-author of the study, was quoted in the NY Times as saying, “one conclusion from this [study] is that the role of awareness of prayer should be studied further.

 

The relationship between spirituality and health

Dr. Harold Koenig, founder of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University (and a medical school classmate of mine from UC San Francisco) thinks we need to focus on a different aspect of the relationship between spirituality and health. He is quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying,

“It’s time now to redirect resources toward supporting studies that try to understand how religious faith influences people’s health and well-being through understandable mechanisms.”

This, in my mind, is fundamentally different from determining the impact of strangers’ prayers on someone else’s health. It involves understanding the impact of an individual’s beliefs—something that emanates from their own mind (and body)—on their own health.

Although we have learned a lot in recent years about the connection between the mind and the body, we don’t know as much as we should about how an individual’s mental outlook, including their religious faith, impacts positive or negative health outcomes. We should not, however, underestimate how difficult it will be to design good studies that can tease out the impact of faith versus the impact of other personality traits, such as optimism, determination, and will-to-live, on physical outcomes of health. I look forward to learning more about this topic from solid medical researchers, such as Dr. Koenig, Dr. Benson, and their colleagues.

Postscript: If you would like to learn more about the nexus of religion, spirituality, and health, Dr. Koenig recently published a review on the topic. Here’s a link to the abstract on PubMed.

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