For example, attending religious services was associated with a 15% higher likelihood of achieving an “intermediate” or “ideal” composite cardiovascular health score, which includes eight measures including diet, physical activity, sleep, and nicotine exposure.
“I was slightly surprised by the findings that multiple dimensions of religiosity and spirituality were associated with improved cardiovascular health across multiple health behaviors that are extremely difficult to change, such as diet, physical activity, and smoking,” said lead study author Dr. p LaPrincess C. Brewer, a preventive cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, in a news release.
“Our findings highlight the essential role that culturally appropriate health promotion initiatives and lifestyle change recommendations can play in improving health equity,” she added. “The cultural relevance of interventions may increase the likelihood of impacting cardiovascular health, as well as the sustainability and maintenance of healthy lifestyle changes.”
Cardiovascular health among African-Americans is worse than among non-Hispanic whites, and cardiovascular disease mortality is higher among African-American adults than among white adults, according to the release.
The study looked at survey responses and health examinations of 2,967 African-Americans between the ages of 21 and 84 living in the tri-county area of Jackson, Mississippi, an area known for its residents’ strong religious beliefs. The analysis did not include participants with known heart disease.
Participants were grouped according to their religious behavior according to the health factors, and then the researchers estimated their chances of meeting heart disease prevention goals.
Epidemiologist Mercedes R. Carnethon, vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told CNN that the study suggests that religious practices and beliefs are associated with better measures of cardiovascular health. She is a volunteer expert for the American Heart Association, but was not involved in the study.
“One hypothesis that could explain these observations is that both religious practice and behaviors that are associated with better cardiovascular health, such as adherence to physician recommendations for behavior modification, not smoking, and excessive drinking, share a common background or personality characteristic,” Carnetton said.
“Observance of a religion requires discipline, conscientiousness, and a willingness to follow the guidance of a leader. These traits may also lead people to engage in better health practices under the guidance of their health care providers,” she added by email.
For Jonathan Butler, associate minister at San Francisco Third Baptist Church and research faculty member in the Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of California, San Francisco, the study makes “the case for strengthening religion and spirituality in faith-based and culturally appropriate interventions in the way of life.”
“A potential way to address health disparities in the African American community is to use the physical and social capital of faith-based organizations to improve health outcomes,” Butler said.
But religious leaders face challenges, including unsustainable research programs and volunteer burnout, he added.
Dr. Elizabeth Ofili, a professor of medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, highlighted potential reporting bias in the cross-sectional study.
Ofili highlighted an opportunity for future research involving “self-monitoring/digital devices to mitigate the challenges of bias in reporting health behaviors.”