Paging Dr. Frischer: Prayer

Given my profession, it’s no surprise that I frequently hear the words “I will keep him (her) in my prayers.” It’s a very decent and human thing to say, and shows concern for a fellow human being. I often find myself saying something similar.

Is a strong religious faith good for our own health? Is there real, verifiable, power in prayer, and if so, can we scientifically measure whether praying for another’s health makes a difference? Just what are the important factors for healing: the actual prayer itself, or being a part of a religious community (or any community)?

What is clear is that it’s far easier to measure the effect of a medication on, say, blood pressure, than to measure the effect of prayer on health.

Of course, those of you who are devoutly religious will neither seek nor need my confirmation or denial of the power of faith or prayer in healing.

The effectiveness of prayer has been the topic of various scientific studies since at least the late 1800s. In the early 20th century, Florence Nightingale, a pioneer of modern nursing, was a believer in the effects of prayer. She wrote: “Often when people seem unconscious, a word of prayer reaches them.” More recently, the Washington Post wrote: “...prayer is the most common complement to mainstream medicine, far outpacing acupuncture, herbs, vitamins and other alternative remedies.” 

However, recent medical studies on prayer have shown mixed results.

There is evidence that those with strong connections to a religious community are healthier and live longer lives. The director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health found that regular worshipers live longer. An additional analysis “indicates people who are more religious and pray more have better mental and physical health.” Scientific measurements show more optimism and lower blood pressure. 

A study from the University of Texas showed that there is a seven-year improvement in life expectancy for those who attend church weekly over those who never do. A study published in the U.S. Journal of Gerontology revealed that atheists had a significantly increased chance of dying over a six-year period than did the “faithful.” The American Society of Hypertension found that churchgoers have lower blood pressure than non-churchgoers.

However, these studies didn’t examine the specific impact of prayer itself. Scientific studies on the impact of prayer have indeed been conducted, often within a medical setting. These studies have used different structural methods, and measured both hard data (such as changes in blood pressure) and soft data (such as anxiety levels and number of doctor visits). They have measured first-person effects (where the beneficiary performs the prayer), second-person effects (where someone with a personal connection to the beneficiary performs the prayer), and third-party effects (where a group of unknown people pray for the beneficiary).

If prayer affects health – one way or the other - then patients, doctors and policymakers should all want to know. However, results have been inconsistent. Many factors complicate the outcomes. There may be biases implicit in the study design, depending on who is conducting the research, and what their own beliefs or end-goals are. How is “dose” to be quantified, as it is in other scientific studies? Is one person’s prayer less than that of an entire group? Are some particular prayers or individuals more powerful than others? What is the mechanism by which prayer works? Does a positive result represent intervention by a higher power, or some unknown energy…or a placebo effect?

Many agree that the power of prayer is a complex issue that would need considerably more hard evidence before the scientific community can count on it as a therapeutic intervention. 

However, let me go out on a limb and conclude with this: In a world divided by politics, race, gender, religion, and economics, I see no harm and in fact great benefit from becoming connected to the well being of the world and everyone in it through prayer, or simply loving thoughts. 

When I look at this subject and the data available, it reminds me to continue to improve my own connections to my community, religion, profession, family, and friends for love, support and health.

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.