When we think of preventing and/or reducing one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s, exercise, diabetes, depression, diet, and family genetics are the normal factors that come to mind. Could something as seemingly simple as prayer affect one’s risk of developing this dreaded disease?

Praying regularly can reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and milder memory problems by 50 percent, according to a joint Israeli-American study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

The research project focused on identifying factors that increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Researchers examined several aspects of the subjects’ lives, including what they did in their spare time during their 20s and 30s. The results determined women  who prayed regularly had 50 percent less chance of having mild dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Lead researcher Prof. Rivka Inzelberg said they couldn’t determine the connection between praying and Alzheimer’s amongst men because 90 percent of their male subjects prayed daily. “But among the women, only 60 percent of the women prayed five times a day, as per Islamic custom, but 40 percent didn’t pray regularly, so we were able to compare the data,” Inzelberg explained.

The study did not characterize the connection between prayer and memory, but Inzelberg noted, “Prayer is a custom in which thought is invested, and the intellectual activity involved in prayer, beyond the content of the prayers, may constitute a protective factor against Alzheimer’s.”

The  results were present at a Tel Aviv conference, also showed that 50 percent more women suffer memory problems than men and that formal schooling reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s and memory impairments.

Other risk factors that were identified were high blood pressure, diabetes, excess fats in the blood and heart problems

Also, researchers said those who gardened in their youths also had a reduced risk of dementia, though they hadn’t calculated the exact degree of influence.

This is not the first study suggesting a link between religion and health. In 2005 researchers concluded that adopting a spiritual or religious lifestyle slows down the progress of Alzheimer’s. An earlier study showed that more people succumbed to heart problems and cancer in secular kibbutzim than in religious ones.

The Israeli group Assia found that the morbidity and mortality rates among infants was much lower in religious communities than in secular ones. And researchers who conducted another joint Israeli-American study postulated that the mortality rate was lower for Arab dialysis patients than Jewish patients as a result of spiritual and community support.