More Americans are praying about health issues — both for themselves and for the health of others — according to a new study [PDF] published in the journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.
And the increase in prayer as a “coping resource,” as the paper puts it, occurred in people whether or not they had health insurance or whether their health had taken a turn for the better or worse.
Researchers analyzed data from the National Health Interview Survey, which is conducted regularly by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new study focused mainly on surveys from 2002 and 2007, which showed that the percentage of adults praying for their health had increased from 43% to 49% over that time period.
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Women were more likely to pray than men: 56% of women said they had prayed about health concerns in 2007 (up from 51% in 2002), compared with 40% of men (up from 34% in 2002). African Americans (61%) were more likely to pray than whites (45%). And people who were well-educated, married or had experienced a change in health status (for better or worse) were also more likely than others to pray about health concerns.
“We’re seeing a wide variety of prayer use among people with good income and access to medical care,” said co-author Dr. Amy Wachholtz, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, in a statement. “People are not exchanging health insurance for prayer.”
On the other hand, people with the highest incomes were 15% less likely to pray than those with the lowest, and people who exercised regularly were 25% less likely to pray for their health than people who didn’t.
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Formal religious participation did not appear to influence the use of prayer for health, the study found. “The United States did have an increase in worship attendance across multiple religious faiths immediately after the 9/11 attack, but that has not stayed elevated,” said Wachholtz. “However, people continued to use informal and private spiritual practices such as prayer.”
But the study didn’t address exactly what kind of prayer people engaged in — for example, Wachholtz noted greater public awareness of Buddhist-based mindfulness practices that can include prayerful meditation — or whether people tended to pray before health events or after they occurred.
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The study characterized prayer as a form of “alternative medicine.” Indeed, some research shows that the practice of meditation and mindfulness may have some health benefits, including improving the rate of pregnancy in women undergoing IVF and helping patients with chronic pain.