Yes, it seems that believers are right: People with Alzheimer's disease who pray often will less suffer from memory decline than non-religious people, according to this Canadian study. Religious practices seem to be more protective than spirituality alone. But before you draw simple conclusions, take note of the question mark in my title.
Yet another question of chicken and egg
The prayer and Alzheimer's case is just one of these links or correlations that are reported in every medical study. And, as always, the old question comes up: What was first? Is the memory loss slower because of the prayers? Or are persons with a better memory simply better able to pray? If we assume that religious practice is a complex cognitive task, then it may be impossible for persons with a rapid memory loss.
Even if we assume that prayers really help to curb memory loss, we still must ask why? Science can say nothing about god, let alone about his help, let alone against Alzheimer's disease. All we can say is that religious pracices require an active brain, and this is likely to be protective against Alzheimer's. Note that the active practices do better than the passive spirituality. To pray is okay, do it. To play chess is also okay, do it. Or read books. Or solve crosswords. Or engage in social life. No matter what you do, but keep your brain active. - (Picture by Geo8 @ Flickr)
Voice of the affected
In response to this post, I have received very personal, very touching emails. This is no question of science any more. This is about emotions and about the sad situation of a slow sloping path to death. For Diane, such a study does not matter, because religion «has nothing to do with rate of disease, but it can affect coping with disease». This adds a very important point. And, in my opinion, a good coping may influence the rate of the disease in a positive way. But, sad as it is, even this cannot be any better, according to Patty: «Can prayers speed up memory loss, to quickly get through the blank years of Alzheimer's? I wonder why in the world one would want to slow down this disease, make it last longer.»