Editor’s note: Room for Improvement is a weekly column by freelance writer Sara Groves about her yearlong quest to become more physically, finacialy and spiritually healthy.

From the time I was a kid, my parents only forced me to go to church for the Christian biggies: Christmas, Easter and weddings. Once I moved out and went to college, I became one of those annoying 20-somethings who sits around questioning the existence of God — both in philosophy classes and after drinking too much.

But then I grew up and as grown-ups do, I hit what I now think of as the bleakest, most awful and horrible period of my life. I’ll spare you the gory details, but I was lost, lonely and confused. And with nowhere else to turn, I found myself once, in the middle of a very long and dark night, in an unfamiliar place: talking to God — praying, if you will.

It certainly didn’t solve anything, but I was surprised to find that it made me feel somewhat better. Since I was already grasping at straws, I kept on doing it. And as my life started to improve, I kept on praying, refining my practice a little, from saying, “Hey God, could you make it so that my life doesn’t totally SUCK?” to offering up thanks for my health, my family, my friends, the blue sky and warm sun, a moment of quiet.

Today, I don’t consider myself a religious person at all, but I do think of myself as deeply spiritual, believing in a power that’s larger than myself to whom I offer up unorganized thoughts of gratitude. And I’m not alone. According to a study reported in the Medical Journal of Australia, 96 percent of Americans believe in a higher power.

What’s even more interesting is that Americans are turning to prayer and religion to deal with health challenges in amazing numbers. In fact, a study by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) found that in a population sample of 31,000 U.S. citizens, 42 percent used prayer for their own health and 24 percent sought the prayers of others.

A Harvard Medical School study showed similar results: 35 percent of the study’s respondents used prayer for health concerns. Of those respondents, 75 percent used prayer for general wellness and 22 percent prayed about specific medical conditions.

And while many medical professionals have shied away from combining spirituality with modern medicine, recent studies have demonstrated that religion and faith can actually help promote health by fighting both physical and mental disease.

Why? How? Does believing in and praying to God offer you some kind of protective pass to which the nonbelievers are denied access?

Kind of.

In the past 10 years, the federal government has invested millions of dollars in scientifically rigorous studies designed to test the efficacy of prayer and its power to heal. The results aren’t exactly conclusive. For every study that seems to link prayer to some medically desired outcome, there is another study that shows opposite or conflicting results.

But research does irrefutably support one thing: being a spiritual person, a prayerful person, a person who attends church — means you’ll live longer than those who aren’t. And the reason is pure science — your parietal lobe.

“My what?!” you’re probably asking. Your parietal lobe — a central mass of brain tissue at the top of your head that processes sensory information — is the part of your brain that changes when you pray or meditate. Now that scientists can conduct functional medical resonance imaging of brains, they are able to note other changes that occur too, namely to your thalamus region and your frontal lobes. These changes work together to help make you more resilient by helping to make you more content — happier.

This phenomenon can also be explained as prayer as “relaxation response.” In other words, prayer helps people be healthier in the same way that meditating — taking five or more minutes out of your day to sit in quiet reflection — provides physiological benefits such as slowed breathing, reduction in heart rate, a drop in blood pressure, peripheral warming and slower brain wave activity.

But there’s also the idea of prayer as placebo. The placebo effect has been shown to account for 50 to 70 percent of the therapeutic benefit derived from certain pharmaceutical and even surgical procedures. If belief in a pill can be so powerful, belief in God, which touches the devout far more than pharmacology, ought to be even more powerful.

As evidence of this, social researchers have followed churchgoers since 1992. Those who never attend religious services are twice as likely to die within the next eight years as those who don’t. For those who fall somewhere in the middle, so too do their results.

While scientists debate the reasons for this phenomenon, evidence suggests that churchgoers rely on one another for support, friendship, walking buddies and rides to the doctor. In other words, they are less likely to die because they have more and possibly stronger social ties than non-churchgoers that help them to be healthier.

Other interesting studies have focused on how well churchgoers have weathered the economic downturn. Not surprisingly, these folks have fared better emotionally than those who don’t go to church and cite the social services the church provides as reason. But even more interestingly, church members who were in a position to help others fare even better than those who receive help — a pillar of religious belief if there ever was one.

But again, scientists don’t believe these people have been touched by God. Rather these people tend to express gratitude for being in a position to help others, which goes right back to that parietal lobe. Because people who regularly express gratitude have been shown to be more positive and optimistic, traits that are strong indicators of longevity.

What it boils down to: Science doesn’t deal with supernatural explanations. But, if you want to err on the side of caution when it comes to your health, establishing a relationship with God is a pretty safe bet.

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